Debate Performance Measured on Harper’s Ability to Evade

Prime Minister’s media training leaves Canadians in the dark

By: James Di Fiore

Back in November I had the opportunity to attend the Christopher Hitchens/Tony Blair debate at Roy Thompson Hall. Hitchens, one of the world’s leading intellectuals, was masterful at creating context and tackling questions directly. Blair was no slouch either, braving a pro-Hitchens audience and delivering rebuttals succinctly and with specific examples to back up his thoughts.

By comparison, Tuesday’s federal leaders debate in Canada felt more like a public relations role playing exercise than an exchange of ideas, policy and leadership ability. Prime Minister Stephen Harper fended off relentless attacks by his three rivals, calmly staying on message and delivering his responses through a very relaxed tone. His inviting cadence aside, Harper was missing a key component from his responses; actual answers to the questions posed to him.

While Blair and Hitchens weren’t running for public office when they exchanged words and ideas (the topic that night was religion’s place in the modern world), their example is clear – debate victories are measured by one’s ability to sway an audience through compelling dialogue. In Canada, debate victories are being measured by one’s ability to spin, deflect and avoid answering questions. The Canadian media and Canadians themselves seem apathetic towards political non-answers, all but accepting this watered down version and waiting for poll numbers to tell them what people are really thinking. But for those of us with extensive media training or experience in public relations, last night’s debate was a buffet of transitionary phrases, rehearsed body language and masterful spinning. These tactics, while effective with the press, are not among the qualities of an honest debate. Harper played Canadians for children, relying on a collective lack of sophistication in regards to language, issues and the ability to spot obvious spin. The sad part is he may be right. The tragic part is it shouldn’t matter. Harper should show leadership qualities, not political savvy. He should be expected to prove to Canadians that he is not just a typical politician and rise above the media training and trickery, not to mention outright lies.

This notion, that debates are won by playing cat and mouse with answers, was echoed by former Harper colleague, Gerry Nicholls.

Politicians never or rarely answer questions directly,” Nicholls mused on his Facebook page. “I graded Harper based on how well the political game is played. In politics, a key skill is staying on message. He did that quite well.”

In other words, Harper did a good job at not being direct with Canadians. This cynical way of deciphering Canadian politics serves an elite political class who have been conditioned to believe there is an accepted amount deception one can get away with. Canadians, who are among the world’s most apathetic citizens to begin with, should take Nicholls words with a grain of salt. Not surprisingly however, it is only apathy that allows this ‘political game’ to even exist in the first place, meaning voter turnout and a competent media (sic) can realistically disarm politicians from using dishonest tactics when speaking directly to Canadians.

Public relations used to be about being concise with the public. Today, public relations has become an industry in politics for those who wish to cling to power and nurture their self interests. The worst part may be the general acceptance of this dishonest practice by those who have been inside the political game for decades. Like aging athletes, it may be time to tell the old guard to step aside. If that happens, the only casualty will be apathy itself.