Canadian 2011 Election Debate: Will Voters Become Engaged

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There were no clear winners or losers in the election debate; however, the event signals the point in the campaign where voters begin to pay attention.

March 12, 2011. Parliament was dissolved March 25, when the Harper Conservatives were defeated amid charges of corruption and being found in contempt of Parliament. Though the political parties have been electioneering for weeks, this night’s televised English language election debate, now viewable on CPAC, was the event, anticipated to ignite voter engagement. Speculation was that Stephen Harper would be under considerable pressure and on the defensive given his party’s record of apparent questionable spending, lack of transparency, and abuse of power. Also, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, needed to demonstrate to Canadians that he was made of leadership material.

Satisfaction with the Debate

The debate format and moderation was successful in that it allowed each of the leaders a period of time to face off one on one, as well as time for open discussion. Last year’s debate at a round table was seriously flawed by many interruptions and speakers talking at the same time, which did not happen on this occasion. Pundits on CBC and other major news outlets are unable to agree that there was a distinct winner. Each of the candidates, in interviews after the debate claimed that they were able to achieve their goals.

Leader Performance

Harper appeared as a calm controlled statesman and appealed to the voters for a majority mandate in order to create a more stable government. One oddity in his demeanor was the way in which he addressed the camera and rarely his opponents, presumably to create the impression that he was talking to the people.

Michael Ignatieff represented himself well in a prepared and competent, though uninspired performance. He did not strongly present his party platform, but had a few memorable exchanges with Stephen Harper regarding Conservative contempt of Parliament and disregard for democracy.

Another salient moment was when Jack Layton hit Ignatieff with a below the belt attack regarding the Liberal leader’s poor attendance during House of Commons votes. Ignatieff, caught off-guard responded by chastising Layton, instead of properly refuting the accusation. Jack Layton, a seasoned debater, took on both the Conservatives and Liberals. He did a good job of distinguishing his party’s platform and values from the others, especially when he offered immediate solutions to health care and immigration. Mr. Layton angrily bristled at Ignatieff’ s contention that the NDP were not a serious contender and that only the Liberals could form a government and deny Harper his coveted majority.

Gilles Duceppe picked away at all three of his opponents with regards their position towards Quebec issues. He began the debate by aggressively attacking the Harper government, citing the leaked Auditor General report on wasteful, and perhaps misappropriated G8 conference spending. Details of the controversy are reported in the Montreal Gazette. It is during this round of the debate that Harper felt the most heat, as the proffered question had to do with trust and accountability. Despite the onslaught by his three opponents regarding his government’s poor record, the Conservative leader was able to deflect criticism, by refusing to accept the veracity of allegations and by making a counter-claim that he ran a successful government given the impediment of five years in a minority position.

Engagement of the Electorate

This much anticipated debate has come and gone. Whether a signature moment or quote becomes a campaign maker or breaker is uncertain. The debate might have been a somewhat dreary affair; however, viewers were able to get a sense of the character and political stance of the leaders. There was no clear winner or loser; however, the event was highly anticipated and expected to prod the electorate. The parties have two more weeks to argue the merits of their politics and platforms. Regardless of the election result, a shake-up of Canadian political landscape is certain. The Vancouver Sun reviews the left/ right dynamics of current Canadian politics. A Conservative majority will shift Canada to the ideological right. A Liberal majority is highly unlikely; however, a Liberal minority might lead to a political leaning to the left as co-operation with the NDP will be essential for any sort of enduring term in power. Given poor election results, the Conservative, Liberal and NDP leaders are likely to be replaced. This election, like all elections, is important and voters need to shrug off apathy and feelings of impotence and realize that a short trip the polls on May 2 will impact their lives and as it will the lives of all Canadians.