There is much to be said for electoral debates. They are, in the eternally hopeful imagination of yesteryear, stately, dignified events, where candidates solemnly intone their intentions to simultaneously cut taxes, increase spending on social programs and health care, rebuild the military, pay off the debt and, with the surplus revenue, invent a renewable, eco-friendly energy source that will cut toxic emissions without harming the economy, all while lowering the steel import tariffs of our neighbor to the south with whom we will maintain friendly, aloof and yet profitable relations, while engaging the rest of the world in multilateral discussions. In this idyllic world, the audience would listen assiduously, perhaps jotting down some notes here and there, and imbibe the candidates’ views on everything from diapers to defense shields, so as to better compare and contrast the candidates’ platforms.
Who knows? Perhaps that would work well were the debate conducted solely in radio or in print, on a different planet, with a wholly different set of candidates – or, to be fair, the same set, heavily sedated. But on television the other night, during the burlesque spectacle masquerading as a leadership debate that we were treated to, one couldn’t help but be struck by some of what you might term the more idiosyncratic personal traits of the candidates. By the end of the debate, I had learnt decidedly more about personality than platform.
There was Gilles Duceppe, with that weird accent that sounds part Texan drawl, part slow learner, crossed together like some horrible mating experiment. With nothing to lose during the English-language debate, he looked almost unbecomingly at ease. Leaning informally against the podium, one half expected him to roll up his cuffs, roll his eyes and smack loudly on some gum.
Then there was Jack Layton, of whom the most fawning contrasted him unfavorably with a used car salesman, gesturing wildly as if controlled by some cosmic puppet master on a drinking spree. One does not like to accuse senior statesmen of unseemly levity, but at times he flailed so exaggeratedly that I was forced to suspect the existence of a practical joker crouching right behind him, arms through the sleeve holes of Jack’s slightly too big suit. (When periodically Jack would gaze intensely at the camera delivering some pithy pronouncement, going what seemed an eternity without blinking, I would be seized with the conviction that I had misjudged this particular aspect of his character.)
And although perhaps Paul Martin was being slightly shrewish – and decidedly un-statesmanlike – when he wondered aloud if Jack Layton’s handlers had advised him to be quite so verbose, one could not help but feel that it would have been more judicious had they stressed the strong, silent motif just a touch more.
Speaking of Paul Martin, I confess that I was somewhat taken aback by just how much more of him there was than I remembered from his stint as Finance Minister. Were Paul Martin to be elected Prime Minister, I felt, the Canadian people would really get their sponsorship money’s worth. Why, we would have nearly twice as much Prime Minister as if, say, Jack Layton got the coveted prize. A small portion of those missing billions, had, I felt sure, found their way onto Martin’s dinner plate. When the leaders emerged from their podiums after the debate, however, I realized with relief that Stephen Harper could, uh, pull his weight nearly as much as Martin.
And that brings me to Stephen Harper. I would never, of course, seriously consider voting Bloc or NDP, except perhaps in my more giddy moments of girlish rebelliousness. In fact, it is hard to say with whose platform I disagree more – although on a personal level, Gilles Duceppe is infinitely more palatable than the garrulous Layton. And, while I frankly can’t abide a miser, and have been known to throw caution to the winds on occasion and spend more than I have strictly budgeted on a pair of just darling shoes, the free and easy way the Liberals have had with my hard-earned tax money has made me a touch uneasy. I too, I feel, could use a little sponsoring, and sometimes it feels like everyone in my home province of Quebec has been on the receiving end of the Liberals’ largesse except me. Why, I wonder, when you can’t so much as mail out a phony advertising invoice in this province without having the envelope returned to you lousy with cash (with maybe a little skimmed off the top by Canada Post), this unjust discrimination? All this to say, perhaps the Liberals’ seemingly eternal tenure in this country has made them a little, well, complacent – and dare I say, smug.
So I was pleased, after all the opposing parties had painted Harper’s party as being peopled by those on whom Machiavelli might have urged more compassion, to find Harper more reasonable than I had expected. If I were voting for someone to have a rollicking good time with at the local pub, Harper might not be my candidate of choice. But on a personal level, I liked his clarity of expression, his even tone, and his more dignified manners (minus a worrisome propensity to chew on his lower lip). On a political level, I tend to favor his policy of less government intervention in the economy. For example, when the thing nearly turned into a love fest, with Duceppe and Layton making dove eyes at each other and Martin cooing about the universal daycare system in Quebec, Harper’s was the only voice of reason. Why should a parent who elects to stay home with his or her children have to subsidize daycare for those who work? Why not give the decision to the individual to choose, in the form of tax rebates or grants? What business, I ask myself, does the government have to promote one form of child rearing over another?
In all fairness, it can’t be easy to be a politician. To me, it ranks right up there with coal miner, undertaker and the guy who cleans airplane toilets. Shy, retiring types, those with a thin-skinned sensibility, and those with objections to the existence of people who feel that there is nothing wrong with the esthetics of your campaign poster that the addition of horns to the top of your head and “SATAN” scrawled in red across it wouldn’t fix, need not apply. You must quickly cultivate an immunity to inquisitive journalists who are never happier than when gleefully pouncing on your every weakness, including your regrettable proclivity for flying the flags of foreign countries on your steamship line.
In many respects, though, this debate represented an improvement over those of previous elections. Despite the fact that there was no getting over Layton’s unrelenting loquaciousness or Martin’s nebulous bluster, it was cheering to find once again some real competition in the federal arena. While it is true that at times the atmosphere was more suited to a prison riot of the rowdier sort than the noble exercise of a democratic institution, it was perversely comforting to know that no prime ministerial hopeful could reasonably hope for more than a minority government. And when I cast my vote at the ballot box on June 28, I’ll be fervently wishing my candidate a limited success.