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There was actually something new in the leaders' debate Monday -- alas, it's not a good thing

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Still from debate livestream. Image: YouTube

The United States' two-party political setup may not be much of a template for actual democracy, but at least it has lots of potential for interesting leaders' debates.

A televised leaders' debate in a vibrant multi-party democracy like Canada? Not so much.

For one thing, you have to invite the leaders of far-right fringe parties and regional separatist parties, which is not particularly interesting at best and disturbing at worst. Many of us witnessed all this Monday night for as long as we could stand it.

Nevertheless, such events can be made even more boring, unenlightening and distasteful through the adoption of a weak formula, something at which the organizers of Canada's English-language debate for would-be prime ministers and potential holders of the balance of power obviously exceeded expectations.

These exercises in tedium and disingenuity are probably a necessary evil. So we're all just going to have to suffer through them every four years or so, praying for one of those dramatic moments when someone says something so cripplingly stupid a well-briefed interlocutor can swoop in for the kill.

Who can forget hapless Republican Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush's running mate, telling the 1988 vice-presidential debate in Omaha, Nebraska, that he would have more experience coming into office as president (in the unfortunate event Bush punched the proverbial ticket while on the job) than did John F. Kennedy? Equally memorable: the smirk on the face of Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrats' VP candidate, as he prepared to insert the banderillas:

"Senator, I served with JFK. I knew JFK. JFK was a friend of mine. Senator …" (beat… beat…) "you're no Jack Kennedy!"

The cheers of the crowd were as much in admiration for the sheer joy of the slapdown as from base partisanship. Who says boxing is the sweet science?

Even then-Alberta-premier Jim Prentice's famed "math is difficult" moment in 2015, as he defended his deceptive calculation of the size of a proposed NDP business tax increase, was such a moment. Not so much because of NDP Leader Rachel Notley's evisceration of the man, though. She hardly bothered. It was her giggles at the stupidity of his remark that made the moment memorable.

So it was disheartening to hear Andrew Scheer's response to the first question of the debate Monday afternoon was to pivot in mere seconds away from his answer to the actual query to delivering a tirade attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as if it were one of those ripostes that, ever so infrequently, make debates momentarily interesting.

The question: "How would you effectively defend both the interests and the values of Canadians on the world stage?"

Scheer devoted 26 words to his answer. He then used the rest of his time to badmouth Trudeau for a litany of sins, real and imagined. "Mr. Trudeau, you're a phoney, and you're a fraud, and you don't deserve to govern this country."

This from a guy who lied on his resumé, fibbed about his education, and somehow forgot to mention his citizenship status to Canadians!

Who needs this stuff? At that moment, about a minute into the proceedings, you could almost hear TV remotes across the nation clicking for something more meaningful and engaging. RuPaul's Drag Race, maybe, the Weather Channel, or the Home Shopping Network.

Needless to say, what Scheer was doing was not a debating technique. It was more akin, I would suggest, to punching your opponent at the start of a high school wrestling match while the referee was still explaining the rules and admonishing the adversaries to make a clean fight of it.

But the intention, obviously, was to introduce a faux riposte early in the debate that could be instantly clipped from the video, converted to an Internet meme, and posted along with a fatuous declaration of victory moments after the so-called debate had ended.

This is pretty much what the Conservatives did, of course. Unsurprisingly, according to Scheer's Rebel Media-trained campaign experts, he won the debate.

The effect, needless to say, will be that other parties will adopt the same strategy -- out of necessity, knowing the Conservatives are bound to cheat the same way again. Whatever little utility these messy debates have will be further degraded.

But you can't say there was nothing to be learned from this so-called debate. We all now know a shabby new rhetorical trick.

As for the actual debating, what little there was of it, I say NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh won, and Green party Leader Elizabeth May got the best lines.

For his part, Trudeau avoided setting anyone up to humiliate him, and thereby likely won the actual contest. Final judgment on that assessment will be available in a couple of weeks.

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Maxime Bernier of the People's Party of Canada? I covered them in the third paragraph.

Disorder in the house!

The Alberta legislature got back to business yesterday, and it's nice to know that high on the agenda is a government motion to lend more decorum to the proceedings in the house.

I jest, of course.

I am speaking of the motion brought forth by house leader Jason Nixon resolving that the legislature express its support for Alberta's oil and gas industry (there will be no objections on that point in that assembly) by encouraging "individuals who show their support by wearing pro-Canadian oil and gas apparel, including when visiting the Alberta legislature…."

Sad to say, this nonsense would almost certainly pass even if the Conservatives didn't have a majority.

This was apparently cooked up by the brainiacs on Premier Jason Kenney's strategic A-Team in response to the fact a visitor was asked to remove such a T-shirt before touring the Senate chamber in Ottawa last month. This was acknowledged to be an error by the Parliamentary Protective Service, but it was blown into a massive brouhaha by a compliant media anyway.

Now Alberta Speaker Nathan Cooper will take it a step further by effectively allowing sartorial demonstrations in the public galleries -- as long as they're in favour of positions advocated by the government.

Needless to say, allowing gallery visitors to dress up in T-shirts supporting the government will lead to similar demonstrations against the government's policies and actual protests with shouting and thrown objects when those demonstrators are instructed to remove their T-shirts or leave, with civil and criminal legal proceedings to follow. At best, this will be embarrassing.

Past Speakers have insisted on proper decorum in the public galleries. Worn objects that might be construed as protests were pretty much restricted to cowboy boots and lapel pins, and the rules were applied the same way to all. Those days are gone.

Nothing to see here, people, move along please …

Also on the first day of the new sitting, the UCP moved to appoint Calgary-East MLA Peter Singh to membership on the standing committee on the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Singh is under investigation by the Office of the Election Commissioner and the RCMP after allegations of bribery and fraud in a candidate nomination election last year. He denies the allegations.

The heritage fund contains assets of about $18 billion.

Nixon dismissed NDP opposition concerns as "fear and smear politics."

Seriously, I'm not making any of this up!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's post, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: YouTube

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