There was a lot of controversy in Stephen Harper’s move to rebut the typical national leaders debates organized by the consortium of major Canadian broadcasters; those in favour said more debates is better, those against said that Harper was trying to avoid being questioned in front of the largest possible audience. After the Maclean’s debate in August there was some reason for optimism, it was well put together, professional, and lent real insight into the leaders and their points of view on the issues. The same, however, could not be said about last night’s Globe and Mail debate.
Let’s start with the format, if that’s what you call it. A question was asked, one person would give a little speech, a second would give a little speech, and then the third would kick off an open discussion that, more often than not, lead to a five minute long shout fest as either Harper, Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulciar tried to get their talking points out. In the end, that’s all Canadians really heard were talking points. The point of the open format discussion between leaders was meant to promote spontaneity, and in one or two cases (“Old Stock Canadians”, “Puffs of Smoke”) it did, but more often than not it was an indecipherable mess.
That’s usually where the moderator steps in, but David Walmsley proved as adept as a debate moderator as he is at being a newspaper innovator. Sometimes he was way too laid back at getting into the fray, and other times he seemed all too willing to interject his own opinion where it wasn’t wanted or needed. When the candidates did need challenged on their answers he wasn’t there, unless that candidate was Trudeau, in which case he was all too happy to interrupt. I wish I could say it was the most annoying thing done by the Globe in regards to last night debate (egg timer anyone), but having four of their not ready for prime time reporters fill up 15 minutes of air before the debate started was a real pain. They said the debate started at 8, not 8:15 after a bit of free advertising for the paper sponsoring the debate.
The staging of the debate was also problematic, the background with an image of Parliament Hill coloured in purple hues looked more like a Halloween display than the setting of a national debate. I’m not sure how it looked online, but the camera work and lighting looked terrible on CPAC. Considering the debate did run on both CPAC and CHCH, perhaps it was unwise to leave the *broadcasting* demands of a major leaders debate to a *newspaper*. And watching the debate on CPAC while having one eye on Twitter to watch Elizabeth May’s responses, one couldn’t help but notice the staging for her Periscope-filmed segments was a helluva lot better than whatever the Globe was doing.
And isn’t it odd that in the end, despite all the protests about her not being included in the debate, the fact that May wasn’t there on the debate stage made her a winner. Outside of the shouting and the din of the Calgary stage, May was able to deliver her message, stay on point, and, dare I say, look more prime ministerial than the boys. It also highlighted another vital difference between this and the Maclean’s debate, that the presence of May on the main stage adds an unknown quantity to the proceedings, because Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau are all used to each others’ rhythms thanks to the daily grind of Question Period. Having May up front and in their face required the others to change the way they play the game.
In the end, how the Globe debate went down will not be an incitement on this new Wild West system of debate administration, but between this and the Maclean’s debate we’ve gotten a pretty good template for what works and what doesn’t work. Having May in the mix works, having an egg timer doesn’t. Having competent and active moderation helps, letting the candidates shout at each other doesn’t. Letting the broadcasters manage a broadcast works, letting newspapers manage a broadcast doesn’t. That’s not an endorsement of the consortium, but we do all need to be away of what we do best.