One of the major lessons I learned from the election in 2015 is that policy matters less than the trustworthiness of the people we elect. As much as I believe we need good policy and a vision for the future, what we need even more are politicians who can react and respond with integrity and make decisions that reflect both the values they represent and the promises they made during the election campaign. A plan is important, but not as important as voting with integrity. The nuts and bolts of being an MP has much more to do with sitting on committees, listening to constituents, and learning the issues thoroughly than it does executing a grand plan. A leader who pushes through their grand vision without consulting citizens or other MPs is an autocrat, not a democrat, no matter how impressive the plan.
Election season kicked off with a debate hosted by Macleans and CityTV just a day after the writ was dropped. Thanks to last election, I’ve been following Canadian politics fairly closely the last four years, and I have a fairly good working knowledge of the current issues, and, especially, how the various party leaders have been behaving before the election campaign started. I listened to the debate bearing in mind the lesson I learned: I was paying less attention to the policy promises than I was to how the leaders conducted themselves. I was asking: Do I trust the leaders, are they acting with integrity, and do I believe they would make good decisions if they were in power?
Before I write about the debate itself, I should mentioned the preconceptions I started with:
I voted for Harjit Sajjan in 2015. Who? Our Minister of Defence of course! Oh, you didn’t know who our Minister of Defence was? Ok, I voted Liberal. Strategically. And then I immediately regretted it.
If I hadn’t voted strategically, I would have voted Green thanks to the immense amount of respect I have for Elizabeth May. During the 2015 campaign, I managed to see every leader except Harper speak, and May was the only leader who actually said anything. I believe her when she talks, and she can speak with great knowledge and specificity on virtually every issue in parliament. Needless to say, I’m predisposed to think highly of her in this season’s debate…
Given my strategic vote, I should point out that I’m also predisposed not to trust the Conservative Party. Harper left a scar that hasn’t healed yet, and Sheer has not endeared himself to me with his behaviour since he became leader. I had respect for Rona Ambrose (Who? The interim Conservative leader after Harper resigned and before Sheer was elected), but if there’s one defining feature of Sheer since he took leadership it’s this: He’s been relentlessly searching for any and every scandal he can pin on Trudeau. His anti-Trudeau strategy has defined virtually every statement and vote he’s made in parliament since he became leader in 2017. His leadership marked a distinct shift from a Conservative Party that was interested in working with the sitting Liberal government to one that opposes and attacks whatever the Liberals are proposing, regardless of whether it would be good conservative policy. In other words, Sheer has been in campaign mode for two years already, and his campaign has consisted almost entirely of attacks on Trudeau.
The debate was jointly hosted by Macleans and CityTV — both owned by Rogers if you care to know whose corporate media line they are peddling. Macleans, the wonky establishment political magazine, was presumably responsible primary political content: the host, the questions and the structure of the debate. CityTV, “local” news station across all of Canada provided the television infrastructure and presumably also the analysis (I use the word loosely) from various talking heads and assorted people “on the street”.
The host was boring, dry, and started by reminding people that, here in Canada, we vote for MPs, not a Prime Minister, and definitely not a president. I liked him, because he actually took the debate seriously intellectually — perhaps the only person involved who did. And, in contrast to the debate in 2015, the questions he asked were specific, genuinely difficult, and tailored specially to the leader he asked. I think it helped. Unlike 2015, where none of the leaders said anything of substance whatsoever, this debate did have moments that required the leaders to show they knew what they were talking about, and, although there was plenty of deflecting and answering different questions from the leaders, there were also a few moments where there was <gasp> actual debate.
By contrast, the political analysts and talking heads (who took up a not insignificant amount of time between each section of the debate) were, without exception, vacuous and inane, and actively encouraged to be so by hosts that would cut off whoever was speaking after their designated 15 seconds of airtime (perhaps 30 for the so-called panel of “experts”).
The worst of this was a group of six chiefs and a grand chief from Enoch Creek First Nation who were asked to comment on the Indigenous section of the debate, and then repeatedly and rudely interrupted by the host to let them know that they had to hurry. It was clear enough that they were there to represent the Indigenous voice, but not to actually use it. I would have been insulted.
To be fair, they were given more time to speak at the end of the debate. The mic was given to the Grand Chief, who made a brief comment along the lines that every issue is an Indigenous issue, and then the mic was quickly passed between the remaining chiefs while the host asserted that they must agree with their Grand Chief without allowing them to say more than “yes” or “I agree”.
Almost as bad was the data analyst from Google (why was Google invited to offer analysis on the debate?), who accidentally demonstrated how irrelevant the debate was by pointing out that, during the debate, Trudeau (who was not present) was being Googled more than any of the other leaders. Strangely, the trending search for almost every leader seemed to be some variation of “How tall is <political leader>”? Clearly, the debate did not have any effect on what people were searching online (perhaps because the few people who watched the debate were busy … you know … watching it).
This is a short section, because Trudeau was a no-show. The debate left his podium empty on camera, and cut to his rally in Edmonton a couple times to give him a token presence. I guess Trudeau figured we already know what he’s like, so we didn’t need to hear him give canned answers to questions that are designed for political theatre. Smart man.
Mr. Sheer repeatedly confirmed my preconception of him by answering every single question he was asked with some variation of “don’t trust Justin Trudeau, he will make you poor”. He did a better job than any other leader of avoiding / ignoring the questions he was asked and staying relentlessly on message.
If I didn’t already follow politics, and if I was already inclined to dislike Trudeau, Sheer made a superficially good case for voting Conservative rather than Liberal. He came across as inoffensive, intelligent, and reasonable. Also, completely unable to converse outside of his preassigned talking points, or address direct questions, whether they were asked by the host or the other leaders.
He didn’t seem to care what the other leaders had to say; invariably he would simply answer with a talking point, whether or not it had anything to do with the subject at hand. Clearly he’s had some excellent media training, but to my mind, media training is not among the qualifications I expect in a Prime Minister. I thought Elizabeth May summed up his attitude quite nicely: “I will consult with you ’til you agree with what we’ve already decided to do.’” That was in reference to his approach to Indigenous consultation, but I think it would apply equally well to consulting citizens or other MPs.
Sheer has a salesman’s talent for making his policies sound like the only reasonable option. Also, a talent for disconnecting his sales pitch from the actual policies he is selling, with just enough plausible deniability that you technically can’t say he’s lying about them. If you don’t think about them they sound pretty good. If you do think about them (or have prior knowledge of what he’s describing), it’s clear he doesn’t want to describe them honestly.
I have a couple examples of this. The first is a variation of the same cutting-taxes-will-make-you-richer theme that has become so definitely conservative. In Sheer’s words: “when you’re talking about adding tens of billions of dollars, $43 billion dollars to the costs of government, that all comes from somewhere, that comes from the economy. That means that there is less prosperity and less growth, less economic activity that lifts people out of poverty.” In other words, tickle-down economics. It sounds reasonable coming from Sheer’s mouth, regardless of the fact we’ve been operating with this economic logic for the last 40 years and we have definitely not lifted people out of poverty. The idea that good government means maximizing GDP (“the economy”) and that somehow this makes everyone richer is believable when Sheer says it, and it requires a fairly high level of external knowledge to understand why it’s not.
The second is Sheer’s environmental policy. For a moment, he made me believe that he actually has one. He says two impressive things: He prefers regulation of heavy industry to the carbon tax that exempts the heaviest polluters. This is a fair criticism mixed with fairy dust. It’s true that some of the heaviest polluters (like concrete plants, or steel refineries) have license to pollute more under the current carbon tax. But the “regulation” he refers to is a plan to force polluters to spend a certain percentage of their revenues on R&D for pollution reducing technologies. Technically, yes, that’s regulation. But not an effective one. Left unsaid is the absurdity of thinking that R&D alone, without any sort of emissions cap, will somehow convince heavy industry to actually pollute less rather than using R&D to wring more production out of the same amount of pollution.
He also makes a good pitch that climate change is a global problem (it is), and therefore Canada’s strategy should be to reduce pollution globally rather than focusing on our domestic emissions. Sounds great, but … uh … how does Canada reduce emissions in other countries when we can’t even reduce them in our own? By selling them “clean” natural gas, which will displace dirtier sources of energy. This suffers a similar problem to his R&D regulation: It will add supply to the global market, which will drive prices down, and the result will be more energy consumed overall (i.e. both the natural gas and the dirtier energy sources will end up being burned).
Singh is a relative unknown, selected as NDP leader without having a seat in parliament. After a recent by-election, he is now MP for Burnaby-South, which makes him a local. I was quite impressed by his genuineness when he was campaigning for NDP leadership, and I gained a huge amount of respect for him seeing him handle a nutcase who ambushed him with a torrent of anti-Islamic epithets (Singh is Sikh). He also wasn’t shy about speaking frankly and directly about inequality or any number of other issues. Unfortunately, after he became leader, his direct honesty disappeared. I think the NDP’s media training team got to him…
I was hoping to some of that honesty come back in the debate, but I was disappointed. Although he speaks from the heart, I never got the sense that he was giving his real opinion. He frequently answered questions in the form of a story (usually about some unfortunate mother and child that he’d met), but he never gave the impression that he knew the issues well enough to propose a specific policy solution. Many of the policies he described were actually a value statements, which left me feeling that his heart is in the right place, but he has no idea how to actually turn those values into action.
For the most part, he was too vague to take seriously. The most concrete policy he mentioned was the combination of universal pharmacare and extending the health care system to include dental care. Sounds good to me, though May caught him off guard by citing the $30 billion cost for dental care alone (the number came from her own costing of the policy). Singh didn’t seem to know how much the policy would actually cost, which seems like an important thing to know.
His most memorable talking point was “tax the rich”. He talks passionately about inequality, but beyond asserting the problem, he came up pretty thin in terms of what to do about it. He didn’t describe how he would change the tax structure to fix the problem except in the most general of terms.
The only other memorable moment for me was a disagreement Singh had with Sheer, where Singh came out against trade deals (“fair trade, not free trade”), with Sheer advocating strongly for free trade with the US. Immediately after, the host asked the leaders about Brexit (apparently, Sheer was pro-Brexit “before it was cool”), and the positions reversed: Sheer touted economic independence, and Singh was the one talking up the benefits of open trade. Neither leader seemed to have any awareness of contradicting themselves or of the fact that they had just taken each other’s positions.
May’s intelligence and deep knowledge of everything that has happened in government has always impressed me. Of the three leaders, she was the only one who could speak in any detail about current government policy or why and how it needs to change. She frequently corrected other leaders when they made mistakes about those policies (or their own previously stated positions on those policies).
I was disappointed to find that, while that knowledge is still there, the media trainers seem to have gotten to her as well. Compared to past debates, she was less focused on policy and spent much more time attacking other leaders and their policies. By my judgment, her attacks hit harder than the other leaders’ did, because she was more specific and on point about their failings. Her knowledge and intelligence still helped her in that regard, but she was using them to tear down other leaders (including Trudeau) rather than to advocate for unique Green policies.
I give her credit that, unlike the other two leaders, she made a point of answering questions clearly and directly before she moved on to her talking points, but like the other leaders, she too had an agenda.
On that agenda? Universal basic income, free tuition, and a cap on carbon that is in line with what is actually necessary to keep global warming below 1.5ºC. She doesn’t think small. And, despite Sheer’s criticism that her ideas are pie-in-the-sky expensive, her platform is costed by the PBO (Parliamentary Budgetary Office), which means the financial numbers aren’t just pulled out of a hat. I would love to see some deeper financial analysis, but a leadership debate isn’t the place for that.
As you would expect of a Green, May spoke frankly about the seriousness of climate change and some of the concrete effects that we can expect. She was blunt about the seriousness of the issue and how far from addressing it properly we are. How blunt? “The only thing that can outpace the climate disaster as a threat to human survival is nuclear war.”
Part of the reason she is thinking big is because Green environmental policy starts with what is necessary (as determined by what scientists say is necessary to hit the Paris target of 1.5ºC below pre-industrial levels), and then works backwards to figure out how that target can be achieved.
If you take the environmental crisis seriously, it’s hard to see how you could countenance any other method of planning, but my impression was that Conservative and NDP policies (not to mention the Liberals’ current policy) were based on what they thought was politically feasible, not what is environmentally necessary. In the end, May comes across as advocating for a plan that is impossible but necessary. I’d vote for that and see how far we get, but it seems unlikely most other Canadians will share my sentiment.
I won’t be so trite as to declare a winner of the debate, but I’m sure it’s obvious which leader impressed me the most. I read some of the punditry around the debate, and there didn’t seem to be a consensus that one leader did better than the others, so perhaps all the debate did was reinforce the biases I started with.
If you truly want your own take, go watch the debate yourself. But, when you do that, here’s my request: Bear in mind the lesson I learned in 2015: Ignore most of the policy, and pay attention to how the leaders behave. Decide which one you trust the most, and vote for that one!