Friday, August 7, 2015

Elizabeth May: the Hanging Chad of the Maclean's Leaders Debate

It’s the day after the debate, and everyone (well, those paying attention to a 11-week long federal election campaign in August – which probably isn’t everyone), just everyone, wants to know, “Who won the debate?”  And just like the election results in the 2000 Gore vs. Bush stunner south of the border, we don’t really know yet – and will have to wait until at least some of the hanging chads are counted.

Oh sure – it would be easy to say that since all leaders did well last night (and they did), that there was no clear winner – but that’s not the story that Canadians want, and it’s not the story that the media is going to give them.  It may be true – and I think that most of last night’s viewers, even the partisan ones who would never admit it, saw a pretty even match in what was undoubtedly one of the best national leaders debates this country has seen lately (and perhaps that was due to the absence of the Bloc Quebecois – no offence to Mr. Duceppe and past Bloc Leaders, but in debates about Canadian issues, getting bogged down about the rights and interests of a single province can get a little tiresome for those of us not from that province – but that’s another story, and not the one I want to tell today).

The Response to the Reaction

But reactions from those watching a debate are generally far less important than the reaction to those who report on the debates after the fact.  And given that so few viewers tuned in to last night’s debate, the media reaction to it becomes that much more important.  And for the most part, the media isn’t interested in policy, facts and figures – their opinions are nuanced by other matters, including style, flair, who looked the most “Prime Ministerial” and – importantly – which leaders can boast of “mission accomplished”.

Trudeau: Mission Accomplished

This morning, upon reviewing the feeds at the NationalNewsWatch aggregator site, it was clear that the media had chosen the winner: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.  And clearly, more so than any of the other leaders, he accomplished the mission that he had to perform in last night’s debate.  Admittedly, Trudeau also had the easiest mission – “Don’t look like you don’t belong”.  Sure, Trudeau had a few verbal missteps, but generally speaking, it’s clear he “belonged” on the state.  And not just belonged – on his exchange with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair over the Sherbrooke Declaration and the Clarity Act, Trudeau came across as both in the right, and sympathetic – largely due to Mulcair’s bullying style.  Clips of this exchange played widely in the media, probably more so than any other exchange.  And although Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is probably right – that the Liberals and NDP are pouring gasoline on an unlit fire when they try to make hay out of Quebec separatism – it’s the exchange that many Canadians will be talking about today, and most will be mentioning Trudeau in a positive light.

Harper: Mission Accomplished

Harper, too, largely accomplished his mission.  Going into the debate, he knew that he had a massive target painted on his forehead, so fending off the attacks from his opponents would be job one.  Telling voters what 4 more years of Conservative government would mean for them really wasn’t what he needed to do at this time – and he didn’t.  But Harper proved to be pretty deft and deflecting his attackers and defending his record – and drawing a distinction between himself and Trudeau and Mulcair.  That he was less than truthful on more than one occasion wasn’t nearly as important as looking honest and comfortable. 

Mulcair: Experiencing Slight Turbulence

Mulcair, on the other hand, had a bit of more difficult mission.  With the NDP leading in the polls, but with a sense that Canadians still don’t really know what Tom Mulcair and the NDP are all about, Mulcair had to make the pitch that he is the de facto Prime Minister in waiting.  For the most part, he did this, but he experienced the most setbacks of any of the leaders, in my opinion.  The exchange with Trudeau over the Clarity Act was one, but Mulcair also experienced a horrible stumble when facing off against Green Party leader Elizabeth May over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline.  And while that’s a pretty regionally-based issue that voters along the coast in B.C. might get excited about, the exchange with May itself left Mulcair looking slippery, and not wanting to be pinned down on making a decision.  May dominated him and made him look weak.  Later, Mulcair tried to win back a little of what he lost in that exchange by declaring “climate change” to be the biggest challenge facing Canadians – but the damage was already done.   While Mulcair might have looked fairly “Prime Ministerial”, it’s difficult to make the case that he can brag about “mission accomplished”.

May: Flight Cancelled - or Just Delayed?

May had the hardest mission to fulfill – and it doesn’t appear right now that she accomplished it.  May had to make the case to the media that she belongs in all of the upcoming debates.  Right now, the Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and TVA have all refused to allow May on their stages, and will only host the other 3 national party leaders (although Gilles Duceppe has been invited to the TVA debate).  Those debates will be taking place later in the election cycle, and more Canadians will be paying attention.  With May’s participation in those debates, once again the Green Party will find itself marginalized by the media – and by voters – at a more critical time in the election cycle.
To convince the other debate organizers to invite her, May needed to deliver a knockout blow against either Harper or Mulcair.  She needed to dominate the debate in such a way that the media columnists and pundits would be talking about Elizabeth May in last night’s news casts and in this morning’s papers.  In that respect, May failed miserably.  While she was arguably the best debater on stage, and the one who made the most prescient evidence-based observations, she was unable to deliver anything close to a the knockout needed for the media to stand up and pay attention.

May's Secondary Mission: On Target

What’s interesting, however, is that May not have realized what her mission actually was.  You see, unlike the other national parties, the Greens are running a somewhat more scaled down national campaign with more limited ambitions.  Without the same money or media interest as the other parties – and fighting against a firm trend in the mainstream media to continue to marginalize the Greens – May might have had a different mission in mind going into last night’s debate.  It’s really no secret that most of the seats the Greens are gunning for are located in B.C.’s lower mainland and on Vancouver Island.  To win there, May and the Greens need to make the case that they have the interests of British Columbians in mind moreso than the other national leaders.  With the NDP polling high throughout Canada’s westernmost province, clearly Mulcair was just as much of a target for May as Harper was.

With this in mind, May’s exchange with Mulcair over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline – which didn’t deliver the knockout blow she needed to make a case with the media – will be important for May and the Greens going forward.  It might actually represent a watershed moment for the Green Party of Canada – especially if it leads to the NDP losing the B.C. coast, and British Columbians ultimately electing a bunch of Greens to parliament.  Mulcair’s deflection and slipperiness on this one issue might be enough to change the face of Canada’s Lower House forever. 

Although it might not.  There are a lot of British Columbians who support Kinder-Morgan.  Maybe the issue of tankers plying the waters of B.C.’s coast and jamming up Vancouver’s harbour aren’t ultimately as important to some as, say, terrorism or daycare.  But I’m not so sure.  I think that what May did last night will have resonance – and it’s why that I’m reluctant to suggest that she and the Greens were the losers of the debate last night.  As long as the NDP refuses to take a public position on Kinder-Morgan (and to a lesser extent, Energy East), the more likely it is that Greens will be elected in B.C.  And after last night’s exchange at a nationally-televised debate, it’s going to be very difficult now for Mulcair to change his mind.  NDP strategists might have to start praying for some sort of ecological disaster to use as a reason for road to Damascus conversion moment for their leader.

So the pipeline issue is one of the matters that leaves the “real” winner of last night’s debate in doubt.  It’s a hanging chad, and it will ultimately need to be counted before a more definitive statement about winners and losers can be made.  Of course, by the time it’s counted, no one will care about who won the early August debate.

The Real Hanging Chad: May's Media Mission Accomplished (?)

The other hanging chad actually has to do with May’s first mission – did she make the case to the media that she should be invited to the Globe & Mail and Munk Debate debates?  Based on last night’s and this morning’s response, it’s clearly in doubt that she made the case.  However, we know that debate-based media coverage has a tendency to morph over a few days.  What was the story on debate night doesn’t always prove to be “the story” emerging from the debate after a few days of reflection.  And while May was clearly not the story last night or this morning, let’s wait and see if she emerges as “the story” over the next few days.

For whatever reason, the media’s expectation of May’s performance in the debate were pretty low going into last night.  Suggestions in the media that she was able to “hold her own” show that the media didn’t put a lot of stock into her ability to prove she belonged on the stage with the other candidates – maybe because she has been shut out in the past, and will be shut out in the future.  So “holding her own” might have come as a surprise.  But did she really just “hold her own”, or did she in fact stand up and demand that the media start paying attention to her and the Greens in a way that they haven’t previously – even without a knockout blow?

The knockout would have helped – if today’s media narrative was about how May skewered Harper on something, there would be no question that the Globe & Mail and Munk Debates would change their minds and invite May to participate.  But was May’s performance last night enough for them to reconsider?  Maybe it was – the next few days will be critical.  If the stories from pundits in this weekend’s papers lead to questions about debate organizers not inviting May after her performance on Thursday night, the matter may very well start to gain enough traction that Canadians start demanding debate organizers to change their minds – similar to what happened in 2008 when the Broadcast Consortium initially refused to invite May, but ultimately did. 

It may not even have to be Canadians who lead this charge.  Given that the Globe & Mail is a media outlet, what other media have to say about them can have a pretty big impact on their decisions.  It may be enough that the political pundits lead the charge.  I’ll be looking for media reaction – and the reaction of partisan strategists – over the weekend.  I’m already seen some evidence that May might be “the story” of the debate.  Pundits like to write about “wonkish” stuff like Twitter mentions.  They also get into the the inside baseball of campaigns.  And let’s face it, who doesn’t love an underdog story?  Some of this is starting to leak out into the mediasphere.  By Sunday, it could be a flood, and May will be “the story”.

Right now, though, May is the hanging chad.  She was either the biggest loser – or she might be its biggest winner.  And last night’s debate might just change everything – or nothing.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada) 

No comments: