No politician ever wants to answer questions. It’s a no-win scenario. Most of the time questions are about things you’ve done wrong, or that your party has done wrong, and even if someone genuinely wants to know your opinion, you can’t even tell them that because things you say today will become things you’ve done wrong tomorrow. Canadian politicians have, historically, soldiered on, evading and obfuscating their way from one interview to the next.
Or at least they did until someone very bold asked, “Why do we even answer questions at all?” That bold someone was, of course, Stephen Harper. At first it seemed like a mad notion. How would you even go about it? You could never go out in public. You would need to enlist a bodyguard of thirty so no one could get close enough to ask a question at you. And you would have to get journalists to agree to come to photo ops without being allowed to ask questions!
As it turns out, all these things were fairly straightforward to iron out. My own personal favourite Harper dodge was his classic “Motorcade across the street” where instead of walking to the Governor General’s residence like every other Prime Minister ever, Stephen Harper would drive over in an armed convoy.
It was like the Conservatives had figured out that they could stop showering and not get fired because everyone would be too embarrassed to say anything. The logic of the model was foolproof. And with that, Stephen Harper never entered a room again without everyone’s opinions being vetted first.
In the long run, of course, there were some major flaws with this plan. Avoiding sustained criticism can leave you unprepared for an actual debate setting (No, Question Period doesn’t count. If Siri has a higher accuracy in correctly interpreting and answering queries, you’re not debating, you’re just making noises out of your mouth). The moment of reckoning finally arrived last night during the first portion of last night’s debate where Stephen Harper was pummeled on his signature issue: The Economy. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Prime Minister losing credibility on the economic file, as this has been his single greatest strength and winning strategy in every other election.
Years of claiming to be an effective economic manager, coupled with several years of a poor economic performance, have led to a credibility gap from which the Prime Minister was unable to recover. Each of the opposition leaders landed some heavy blows: Thomas Mulcair pointing out that most jobs being created today were temporary and low-paying; May explaining in detail Harper’s accounting tomfoolery in the budget; all the leaders hammering the Conservative record of multiple budget deficits.
The whole debate was so full of facts and actual arguments that hackneyed talking points were actually out of place. Paul Wells should be credited here for some well-placed interjections, but also for crafting genuinely tough questions for each candidate. Elizabeth May also deserves major credit for not only explaining policy, but also pretty much fact checking the entire debate in real time.
Justin Trudeau got caught up in an insulated bubble of his own this past winter when he decided to simultaneously espouse both sides of controversial counter terrorism legislation, Bill C-51. As it turns out much of his party base did not appreciate this and the Liberals have been lagging in the polls ever since. Trudeau badly needed to make a favourable impression during the debate, and for the most part, he succeeded, at least until C-51 came up again. Here Trudeau launched into a bizarre “Both Of Them Together” speech where he tried portray his luke-warm support for C-51 as a “balanced” approached between security and freedom. I found all this very unconvincing. Interestingly though, the post-debate pundit show interviewed Mubin Shaikh, radicalized youth turned CSIS operative-now terrorism expert, who actually endorsed Trudeau’s stance/non-stance nonsense. So who knows.