Let’s not kid ourselves: A party leaders’ debate is a debate in name only.
On a cynical level, it offers a ritualistic opportunity to recite talking points prepared by aides, to talk past each other when one senses the moderator loses control, to talk to the clan to make sure no one dislodges.
On a practical level, it offers free advertising of one’s brand to bring sizeable undecided or indifferent voters into your camp.
And on a visceral level, it offers the possibility of an inflection point to see someone’s campaign either come to life or shred and sputter.
But debate? Not really. Mostly the leaders are scripted ships sailing past each other in the night.
Like Tuesday, when there was precious little engagement in the election event, three socially distant silos onstage, mostly in monologue, detached from discussion. The civil and strict format likely didn’t help, and the leaders definitely didn’t. Their interruptions were brief and quickly chided.
Which is a shame, because in this pandemic campaign, this is the closest we will get to a whiff of them. The next time they see each other will probably be in the legislature sometime in late year.
The three leaders played it so safe they could give Dr. Bonnie Henry advice.
So much was at stake for BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, so much was at risk for NDP leader John Horgan, and so much was an opportunity for BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. Of the three, only she made much of the moment.
What little emotion there was, and it's not an extensive highlight reel, came when moderator Shachi Kurl asked what they had personally done to deal with their privileges as white political leaders with unconscious bias. You'd expect in 2020 for a politician to have something poignant in hand. Neither Horgan claiming he grew up “not seeing colour” (he later apologized) nor Wilkinson touting his early days as a doctor treating Indigenous patients addressed the question, but Furstenau displayed vulnerability, accepted her role in effecting change, and mourned the fears of mothers for their children at the hands of police.
“We’re not all equal. I wish we were," she said. "The three of us can’t fully reckon with that, because we’re white.”
It was her most powerful moment, a bit of an arrival even though she has been an MLA, and it helps explain why Horgan severed his coalition. After all, what could you hope to gain politically as the NDP leader in another year in the NDP-Green coalition if she were building her brand like she did Tuesday?
She doesn’t have time by October 24 to build much upon what she presented Tuesday, and she will revert the party to largely that of a place to park a protest vote, but she was the best of the three in exceeding expectations. She took on Horgan as if they’d never been coalition partners.
These events are, after all, mostly about taking on the incumbent, and Horgan faced – but did not face down – the incessant critique from his rivals that his election call was “purely self-serving,” “looking out for himself,” and an unnecessary quelling of cross-party co-operation in the pandemic. He was at his least credible when he again trotted out a line you’d think had been shed weeks ago: “It’s not about us, it’s about British Columbians.”
He again contended that he “grappled” with the decision to call the election, even though it seems an entire campaign was ready at the press of a button, and said the policy disagreements on the stage were evidence it was necessary to “put politics behind us.”
Perhaps he missed the point: he was the reason everyone was on that stage in the first place. They said it themselves: we should be working, not campaigning.
Wilkinson’s party won the 2017 popular vote and the most seats, but found itself upbraided by the coalition. He found himself a few times Tuesday having to defend records when he was not leader, not even an elected representative, which is a little like blaming Horgan for fast ferries. These exchanges are usually in the vein of: you created the problem, you failed to solve it repartee. He was able to note the scorecard on building hospitals in the last three decades: Liberals 14, NDP 0. He didn’t hurt himself the way Horgan did. But his penchant for restraint, lost only momentarily when talking about rising crime and housing costs, gave Horgan a much easier ride than the 2018 proportional representation, um, debate, when the premier didn’t know what hit him.
It is difficult to see how 90 minutes Tuesday will build anyone’s momentum, except perhaps Furstenau’s – and she has neither the time nor resources to make much of it now.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.