English debate, the next morning

Five federal party leaders squared off last night around the oblong table at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Coming off of a sort of dress-rehearsal last night for the English speaking viewers, leaders were coached all day yesterday on earlier missteps and new opportunities as senior scripters checked debate playbooks, wiped the blackboard clean and chalked out some final plays.

And though politics can be a contact sport, referee Steve Paikin kept the unnecessary roughness to a minimum and even straightened out a few players when needed. The format of the debate has been criticized by some Conservatives as too amenable to unbalanced debating particularly when four candidates (including one late-comer and one spoiler) focus their attention squarely upon the incumbent. However, if one contrasts this with the American Vice-Presidential debate last night, the table format led to more exchanges and discussion rather than moderator-induced conversation without direct confrontation between candidates. Indeed, the Palin-Biden debate was instead two separate interviews, occurring simultaneously in the same room. The Canadian debate format for this election cycle proved more interesting for viewers and provided an unvarnished look at the candidates as they were challenged directly by the other candidates.

Despite this, the current Prime Minister seemed at ease though at times I’m certain he wanted to leap across the table and give Jack Layton a better-balanced bludgeoning. Viewers of the French language debate joked that the Prime Minister seemed to have been sedated while partisans both friendly and not yearned for more emotion; the unfriendlies hoped for anger while Conservatives hoped for more passion from their champion to describe their common agenda. In the English language debate, the Prime Minister seemed to exude what is more appropriately described as confidence than calm as he took the barrage that came as the polarized players flailed their collective left-wing and labeled the Prime Minister everything from out-of-touch with the middle class — quite brazen coming from Elizabeth May — to a George Bush clone (the left will miss him when he’s gone).

Despite the constant attacks, Stephen Harper performed strongly by donning his figurative blue sweater vest appearing the most rational and collected candidate of the group. As one twitterer likely not voting for Harper put it, “It concerns me that Harper sounds the least crazy.” Jack Layton, the other strong debate performer appealed to the dramatic by twice making cynical references to the very same sweater the PM wears in the Conservative ads. Jack Layton and Stephen Harper needed each other to boost their debate performances and by focusing their heat on each other, they were able to wedge out Dion. Though the Liberals have never had a leader like Paul Martin that was richer, the critics couldn’t be fairer; the Liberals have never had a greener candidate than Stephane Dion and despite Martin’s failings, he was more animated than Dion was last night. Though Martin entered the election in the lead, Dion is coming from behind and failed to capture anyone’s attention last night.

Elizabeth May surprised last night as she was the most sober of the opposition leaders. In comparison with other leaders, May brought a calm, number- and fact-referencing persona to the debate and politely corrected leaders as to the “facts” (though many as she saw them). For many Canadians who look at the political landscape and see the same old players locked in a seemingly eternal stalemate, May brought a fresh face to the stage for Canadians to consider. The Green Party leader needed to show Canadians that she deserved to debate on the same stage as the party leaders. Despite real and valid arguments against her inclusion and a childish repeat of her fraud accusation leveled against Harper, last night she didn’t appear out of place. In that, May scored an impressive victory for her cause.

As the leader of a french-first-and-last separatist party from Quebec, Gilles Duceppe did not have much to gain or lose during the English language debate and the Bloc leader appeared to be the candidate most genuinely at ease during the two hours last night. Duceppe also appeared as a shadow moderator; when he was not advancing his ideology, bringing he brought realism against rhetoric particularly when he gestured towards Layton and Dion suggesting they knew they’d never become Prime Minister and then proceeded to address the sitting Prime Minister — indeed, seated directly across from him — speaking about Quebec’s issues as the Bloc leader saw them. Most observers note that this will likely be Duceppe’s last performance in this forum as the dean of the debate is expected to retire from federal politics before the next federal election.

The debate was interesting to watch and was more interesting than debates in previous years. It certainly brought a fresh perspective to the players that we see in Question Period when parliament is sitting. If more and more newcomers show up to claim their stake on the democratic frontier as May did last night, we might see this format degenerate into a collective browbeating of an incumbent. If democratic reform proceeds along the path which May advocates, do more voices create more noise or do the enrich the process? In the American primary process we’ve seen about ten voices crowd one stage at a particular time with the TV networks biased towards perceived front-runners. Democracy is by definition a dynamic process and the evolution of the Canadian leader’s debate will follow its own path. The method by which our leaders appeal to Canadians for their votes will be, for the most part, fixed directly to the format by which Canadians would choose to hear them. That is democracy.

Tonight’s debate: the drinking game

Tonight, Canada’s four national mainstream party leaders (and one wildcard) will gather at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre for the English language debate. To occupy yourself while you twitter, and yell at the screen here’s the debate drinking game.

First, pick your poison.

If you support Stephane Dion, make sure you have some Château Pétrus on hand. Sip it slowly and savour it. If Stephen Harper is your guy, go to the corner store and get yourself some Coke Zero. Same great taste, zero calories. For those of you supporting Jack Layton, grab a can of Steelworkers Oatmeal Stout. Gilles Duceppe will be in the debate and without much of a clear purpose, if he’s your choice, just pour yourself something bitter. Finally, if you choose Elizabeth May finish your organic pomegranate with vodka and then go and mooch off of Dion. That Pétrus is some good stuff, and though and it won’t give you a hangover unlike the one that came after that thirteen year bender when the Liberals were drunk with power.

And now the rules:

If Jack Layton references the initiatives of one of his MPs, take a drink.

If Elizabeth May calls an idea/policy/person “stupid”/”ridiculous”/”outrageous” take a drink.

If Stephen Harper talks about the fundamentals of the Canadian economy take a drink.

If a leader says “George Bush” take a drink.

If Stephen Harper says “George Bush” finish the bottle and keep drinking til it stops hurting.

If a leader says in reference to Dion “you didn’t get it done”, “Mr. Dion doesn’t think it’s easy to make priorities” take a drink.

If Dion says “this is unfair”, finish the bottle.

Every time Duceppe puts the emphAsis on the wrong SyllAble take a drink.

Every time Dion seeks clarification take a drink.

If Jack Layton says “corporate tax cuts”, “boardroom/kitchen table”, “Ed Broadbent”, “Tommy Douglas”, “hope/change”, “working families”, “big oil/gas/pharma/banks” take a drink.

If Jack Layton says “big labour”, “big ass” or “Barack Obama” finish the bottle.

If Elizabeth May/Jack Layton/Stephane Dion cite Al Gore or David Suzuki take a drink.

If Stephen Harper cites Al Gore or David Suzuki finish the bottle.

Every time Harper/Layton tag-team Dion take a drink. Every time Dion/May tag-team Harper take a drink.

Anytime anyone tag-teams anyone with Duceppe, finish the bottle.

Every time Steve Paikin brings out his pleasant non-offensive wit, take a drink.

If Steve Paikin makes an off-colour joke, finish the bottle.

Add your own in the comments, and… please drink responsibly.

“Clearly, our leader won the debate”

You’ll hear this line from every party but the first public utterance of it that I saw was from the Liberal camp on twitter:

“Stéphane Dion won decisively! He clearly demonstrated that he is the only leader with a credible plan for Canada’s economy!”

This might be the same “credible plan” that was introduced on the floor of the NAC tonight by Dion that CTV commentators admitted reminded them of Paul Martin’s “Hail Mary” Not Withstanding Clause policy at the 2006 leader’s debate. Nobody heard about this plan until tonight. Having already released their platform, which was or wasn’t about the Green Shift depending on what polls Liberal strategists were reading in a given day, the Liberals seem to have released a second draft of their platform tonight. On the economy, is Stephane Dion making it up as he goes along?

The Liberals are stuck in a difficult place during this election. The Green Shift was a train that had already left the station and for Mr. Dion one that was already serving dinner in the dining car when Canadians suddenly became fixed upon the economy. For a serious political party that is vying for power, it is not simply enough to attack a party on an issue — especially one on which one’s rival is strong — but one must also define the path that a party’s leader would take should he or she become Prime Minister. What is astounding, is that Dion is reacting to the global economic crisis like an investor that gets the market numbers from the local TV news between the weather and sports. On the twenty-third day of the election campaign, Dion derails the train and tries to make it hop the tracks. Instead of being proactive on the economy, Dion is reactive.

For the Conservatives, this is an easy pick-up because it underlines the message they’ve been carrying as one of their main themes since this campaign started: Harper represents stability and Dion represents risk. What a disaster it was to see Mr. Dion drop his bombshell so quietly on the debate floor while the other leaders simply paused and moved on. Mr. Dion appeared but as one of four opposition voices — hardly dominant — against the Prime Minister and for Mr. Harper, representing one pole of a polar argument doesn’t exactly hurt his chances.

The most heated exchanges during the debate occurred between Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe, the two front runners of the election in Quebec. On the issues of 14/16 year-olds going to prison for serious crime and repeat offenses, Harper with rare emotion for the evening responded by backing up his plan with third party endorsements of the idea from a police union president and the head of a victim’s rights group. On the Quebec nation and Mr. Duceppe’s two day hesitation and subsequent reversal on the motion that declared Quebec a nation within a united Canada, Mr. Harper demonstrated strength. However, on most other issues such as the environment and the arts, the four-on-one atmosphere that Duceppe led for most of the evening showed the Prime Minister defending his record, the default position for any incumbent.

Will this debate move numbers in Quebec? Likely not. For Mr. Harper, this may mean that he might need a scripting change for that province in order to produce a game-changer that may light a fire under his numbers there. On the other hand, Bloc support may have firmed up on the island of Montreal and the numbers breakdown outside of the city may float Mr. Harper in the more conservative regions of la belle province in order to secure that majority.

The battle for second place

As we enter the third week of the federal election campaign, one cannot help but be struck by how early poll numbers suggesting a Conservative majority government have held. Nanos/CPAC numbers were fairly consistent over the past three days indicating an approximate fifteen point margin between the Conservatives and the Liberals. As one senior Liberal strategist told Sunmedia’s Greg Weston, “For us to make any significant gains would require that just about everything go terribly wrong for the Conservatives.”

We’re about to see the opening of a secondary race; the race for Stornoway is going to be of intense media focus. Consider this: the NDP has a greater chance of tieing or surpassing the Liberals than Liberal leader Stephane Dion has of challenging Stephen Harper for the lead. When we consider this truth, the narrative changes: this is no longer a race to replace the Prime Minister, this is a race to hold him to a minority. And, as NDP and Liberal numbers tighten up, there’s a new math problem for the left-wing collective calculator to solve. Indeed, pollster Angus-Reid yesterday showed results of a national tie between the Dippers and Grits with a larger sample size than usual and a margin of error of just 2.5%.

The New Democrats have always battled with the Liberals to be champions of the left, and now a new entrant – the Greens – are proving to be a serious challenge for Layton. In the past, we’ve seen the estranged Liberal family unite under the banner of the Think-Twice Coalition that usually includes folks like Buzz Hargrove, Maude Barlow, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Will we see an 11th hour alliance between Liberals and the Greens or will such a move sour the goodwill that May has built by making a case for her inclusion in the leader’s debate?

If the Tories play things responsibly and do some smart thinking – twice if need be – and refrain from being too eager to respond to each and every opportunity to put out some pushback, this race will focus on the territorial skirmish on the left. This week’s debate may just help Canadians break from the psychology of the Conservative-Liberal dichotomy and a solid performance from Jack Layton is important for this to happen. In fact, look for Stephen Harper to be a willing combatant against Layton when the NDP leader challenges him this Thursday. Harper and Layton will balance this by doing their best to dunk Dion with their respective right and left feet whenever he tries to get his head above water but we’ll see Elizabeth May come to his rescue in order to get some valuable stage time. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe will just muddle the left-wing message by taking up yet another podium and will do well to underscore the divide between a calm and collected Harper and the jumbled, disjointed side-show to his left. Though Canadians have been impressed with Duceppe’s English language debate performances in the past and are familiar with the Bloc leader, having a separatist voice among the muddled and crowded opposition will just lead more Canadians to side with Harper. If Layton finds his voice with Harper’s help, a strong debate performance by the NDP, in concert with the surging of his party’s poll numbers and the darkness embracing the Liberals may change the media narrative (and Canadian psychology) to think of the NDP as the champion of the underdog left. It is doubtful that the media will then focus on Harper vs. Layton for the rest of the race. They will, however, treat the Dion-Layton-May contest as its own.

The combination of these factors will put the Liberals in crisis mode as their war-room, faced with a question of survival, not only electoral but institutional, debates on whether to spend the limit or bank the few dollars that come its way during the rare fundraising event that is a general election.

What hasn’t been discussed may in fact be the clincher for a Harper majority this election. With so many parties eating each other’s lunch on the left, that magic 40% threshold for a majority may in fact be old math. Jean Chretien, facing a fractured right won a 155 seat majority with 38.5% of the popular vote. The left has pushed for proportional representation in the past in order to buck unity of ideology for increased representation in Parliament. After October 14th, as May, Layton and whoever replaces Dion work over the new math they might come to realize that unity presents the only way forward. For now, the left battles itself with four divided voices and the prize is second place.

Announcing Google Power Readers Canada

I pleased to announce today, the launch of a new way of connecting with Canada’s political party leaders and the journalists that are covering the election campaign.

I’ve been working with Google over the past couple of months on an innovative project that provides a peek into the reading material of those seeking the Prime Minister’s Office the articles that they’d like to share with you, the voter.

Late last night, our site went live and gained some very valuable real estate on the homepage of Google Canada at google.ca.

Google Power Readers Canada is the product of our work. I was able to gather Stephen Harper, Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Elizabeth May together to share articles that interest them and of course, articles they figure will interest (or should I say) entice you to vote for their candidates.

Also featured within the project are some of Canada’s top reporters that are covering the day-to-day action of the campaign. Perhaps, this will allow the “reporter’s notebook” to evolve in the way that reporters gather information and provide raw material for their readers to give them insight on the information gathering process.

You can check in what Jack Layton is reading and sharing with Google Reader, you can get a glimpse into Stephen Harper and Elizabeth May’s interests or find out what sites Peter Mansbridge frequents as he goes through his day. For example, we know that the Prime Minister is an avid hockey fan. From his shared items page we can see that the Mr. Harper is watching how the Leafs new and young talent may shape their upcoming season. The Prime Minister shares an article the Toronto Star about the Leaf’s training camp. Stephane Dion maintains his message and shows us more of his personality by linking to a Fishing Magazine in his profile. Elizabeth May has shared a Nova Scotia article from the Chronicle Herald on her platform release.

Check out Google Power Readers Canada and let me know what you think. Sign up for Google Reader yourself and share some articles with other Canadians and participate in the social media conversation for this 2008 general election. If you’re also posting your ideas, maybe Jack Layton or Stephen Harper or Kady O’Malley will share your blog post or article. I should thank the party leader’s and the journalists for taking a chance on my pitch for this project. I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to offer to Google users. This election is showing the full integration of new media within political campaigns. Google is reflecting this with Google Power Readers.

Green Party releases platform

Here’s the platform of the Green Party of Canada:

Read this document on Scribd: GPC platform

Notes:
– Money for a Green VC fund for green R&D
– renegotiation of NAFTA
– corporate tax cuts for carbon reductions
raise the GST to 6%
– combines the Liberal Green Shift carbon tax with NDP/Conservative plans for cap-and-trade. Also has a more intense GHG target than the Conservatives with 30% reduction from 1990 levels rather than Conservative’s absolute carbon reduction of 20% by 2020 from 2006 levels.
– raise taxes on cigarettes
– labeling of GMOs
– Single payer, universal healthcare
income splitting for everyone
raise income tax exemption to $20k
Guaranteed Annual Income
– meet 0.7% GDP pledge for foreign aid
– turn Afghanistan mission over to the UN

From carbon taxes, to income splitting to massive increases in foreign aid, I look forward to the costing of this platform.

There is not one word in this platform on proportional representation as it relates to democratic reform. Has the Green Party dropped this from it’s goals? Was this dropped at their last party convention on policy? Is this just more evidence that PR is a distasteful policy to the Liberal Party and a Red-Green alliance depends on seat sharing and first-past-the-post rather than proportional representation? Is the NDP now the only party that supports PR?

TVO disagrees with Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May writes a statement on the Green Party website hoping to put the “Canadians are stupid” issue to rest.

Unfortunately, in her statement she writes,

“I reviewed all this on TVO with Steve Paikan [sic] more recently and he confirmed that no one in the room thought I had said Canadians are stupid.”

TVO wants to set thing right and expresses disagreement as their director of corporate communications explains,

For the record, I would like to clarify that at no point during his September 12th interview with Elizabeth May did Steve Paikin express such a personal opinion.

We feel this use of Mr. Paikin’s name – and by extension, that of TVO’s – is inappropriate. We ask that the above mentioned blog posting be corrected, along with any other Green Party of Canada postings or communications of a similar nature.

Here’s my post and YouTube video that started this controversy.

Here’s a good summary of May’s gaffe and explanation to TVO and CTV:

Does Elizabeth May fundamentally agree or disagree?

One thing that we can all agree upon is that Elizabeth May talks too fast and this has got her into some trouble in the past surrounding her February 2007 comments on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin where she says “All the other politicians are scared to death to mention the word ‘tax’. And they think Canadians are stupid — and cannot — and I fundamentally agree with that assessment.”

As I mentioned in my interview on CBC, I was never of the mind that she had said “I” rather than “they” in the sentence where she says “they think Canadians are stupid”. What stunned me was the part where she said “and I fundamentally agree with that assessment”. I didn’t realize there was ambiguity over the pronoun until it was raised by other who saw my video and made comment over at Buckdog.

Now, as it has been confirmed, the audio was “they” but now May reveals that the real difference in interpretation was that she either meant “agree” or “disagree with that assessment”. In Steve Paikin’s Friday interview of May, the Green Party leader explains that she said “disagree”.

However, on Sunday’s CTV Question Period May has a different story that contradicts her explanation to Paikin. May said that she said “fundamentally agree with that assessment” in reference to another panelist who had made an observation that wasn’t recorded.

Most people that run for political office do it out of a love of service for their fellow Canadians. I do not doubt that May’s heart is in the right place. However, her reported off-hand comments after the panel discussion might reinforce for us another element of her thinking. She said “No I want [Hummer drivers] shot actually, jail is not good enough for them!” Of course, any reasonable person would understand that May was joking. However, some might interpret this as a streak of elitism in Ms. May. Some Canadians may get the impression that while she wishes to serve Canada, she likely thinks she knows what’s best for us.