It's too bad about leaders’ debates. So stressful. So artificial. So lacking in nuance and real discussion. But until something better is invented – and I hope it will be soon – so necessary.
Wednesday’s televised debate between the B.C. Liberals’ Christy Clark, NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver displayed all the negatives of such events, made worse by the fact that it was a one-off: there would be no second chances. (An earlier debate was held on radio.) The tension was evident in the opening moments, when all the participants seemed to have been frozen and propped up behind barrel-shaped lecterns in a darkened room. Even Clark, who could easily give seminars in upbeat public presentation, struggled to keep smiling in her power-red outfit.
The leaders thawed over the next 90 minutes, but alas, it was only to reveal how thoroughly their brains had been taken over by party messaging machines. Press a button, and they recited their talking points. It didn’t matter what the question was, or whether someone else was talking – in that case, they’d just talk louder. Sometimes they ended up shouting incomprehensibly over each other. No room for nuances or civil exchanges of ideas; they were just three silos getting their message out.
A few hints of real human beings in there popped up now and again. When Horgan was asked if he has an anger-management problem, he came close to sounding like someone who really cares about the people his party says it does. He gets angry, he said, about things like underfunded schools and kids in care killing themselves because of poor government support.
Weaver, a scientist-turned-politician, started out stiffly, but by the end of the debate it was clear that he is the most forward-thinking of the leaders, with genuine plans for handling transportation, climate change and education. He has no flash or glitter, but he’s running for the right reasons; he doesn’t need a job in politics.
Clark held her own as always, skillfully evading the other leaders’ jabs; but there were hints of a crack in the facade. Her smile is her trademark, but sometimes it seemed like she was having to remind herself to paste it on.
It’s sad for the politicians and sad for us voters that we can’t devise a better way of stacking our would-be leaders up against each other. But grueling and unsatisfying as they are, debates seem to be necessary. We do want to see our politicians in neutral circumstances, not always surrounded by fawning supporters. We do want to hear how they answer difficult questions – even if it’s by ignoring them. We do want to find out who they really might be under the party messaging. But it would be so much better – and so much more interesting for us all – if they could actually talk to each other.