The Liberal ‘debate’ in Winnipeg: so laid-back, not much laid bare

John Geddes on what came up instead of fiscal policy, Mali, the poverty of First Nations and Canada’s aging population

Liberal party leadership candidates Joyce Murray, Justin Trudeau, Marc Garneau, David Bertschi, Martha Hall Findlay, Deborah Coyne, Karen McCrimmon, George Takach and Martin Cauchon at the end of the Liberal Party of Canada leadership debate in Winnipeg, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. (John Woods, The Canadian Press)

What are the most urgent matters confronting the federal government just now?  I ask because I wonder if anybody heard the issues they’d list mentioned much at the Liberal leadership debate—well, not really a debate, but a series of laid-back on-stage interviews—in Winnipeg this afternoon.

Reasonable observers will naturally differ on such a broad question. Still, I’d expect, if we’re talking domestic policy, many to cite the dicey problem of budget-making during such a prolonged stretch of slow economic growth. How to shrink the deficit while still maintaining, even expanding, priority programs? It’s the daily dilemma of governing. It didn’t come up.

On foreign policy, Mali is driving home the lesson that even with Canadian troops no longer fighting in Afghanistan, the pressures of Islamist extremism in vulnerable, far-away countries will continue to demand responses from western nations, Canada inevitably included. Again, not touched at today’s Liberal event.

Turning to social issues, I’d argue that adjusting to an aging population, which everybody knows is putting intergenerational stresses on health and pension systems, has to rank as the top concern. Nothing on that. Others would counter that the country’s most shameful social failure is the poverty of First Nations, with all its attendant misery. Discussed only insofar as the Liberal candidates were pressed afterwards by reporters on why aboriginal policy was omitted from the set of questions they all answered on stage.

Now, you can’t cover everything in an afternoon. And the stuff that was aired in front of the Liberals assembled in Winnipeg’s gloriously renovated Metropolitan Theatre this afternoon included a couple of undeniably top-tier subjects. Each candidate was asked about resource exports—a pillar of Conservative economic policy—and about fighting crime—another Tory centerpiece. But the contenders were also questioned on, oh, the high cost of transportation in rural and remote places, and whether Ottawa should fret about suburban sprawl eating up good farmland.

Not to say those aren’t worthy preoccupations, in their place. Still, I’m not going to hold it against anyone in the audience who might have, during long stretches of these polite exchanges, gazed up at the resplendent, painstakingly restored classic plaster-molding around the recently refurbished golden-age movie palace.

Only occasionally did the leadership contenders speak with sufficient verve to truly demand attention. B.C. MP Joyce Murray chided her party for the lack of discussion of First Nations policy, an odd omission for a stop in this city with its large urban aboriginal population. (Idle No More protestors briefly intruded, beating drums.) Murray also asserted her support for legalized marijuana, and challenged her rivals to be as clear on their positions on pot.

Even better was Martha Hall Findlay’s turn in the not-so-hot seat. Hall Findlay has made getting rid of farm marketing boards her signature proposal, so the pre-determined question about agricultural policy—a snooze for other candidates—played perfectly for her. She was strong on how supply management means higher prices for milk and eggs, which most harms to those who make the least, often single-parent families.  As for how dairy and poultry farmers would survive if they lost their protection, Hall Finlay reminded the room how Canada’s wine industry was supposed to be wiped out by Canada-U.S. free trade, but thrived instead.

She was provocative on the question about crime, too. After nodding at the Liberal consensus against the Conservative push to jail more criminals for longer by imposing mandatory minimum sentences, she pointedly noted that Liberal MPs actually voted for many of Tory criminal law reforms anyway. “We don’t want Stephen Harper to make us look like we’re soft on crime,” she said. “We voted for too many of those bills.”

Justin Trudeau, the presumptive front-runner of course, laid on his usual charm. Each candidate was asked, as a downy-soft opening question, to reveal something personal. Few did anything clever with it. But Trudeau mentioned how badly he misses his kids when he’s out campaigning, and how he’s looking forward to being home for his daughter Ella-Grace’s 4th birthday in a few days. Too sweet? I don’t think so. For many Liberals, Justin still very much somebody’s son; to remind them he’s somebody’s father is smart.

On policy, Trudeau’s best line was his bid to reassure Liberals (and many others) that foreign takeovers of Canadian resource companies don’t really amount to foreign capture of Canadian resources. “The only people who will ever own Canadian resources are Canadians themselves,” he said.

Marc Garneau was blandly likeable during the on-stage interview, but considerably more forceful in his brief closing comment. Garneau came close to haranguing his opponents with a demand that they be precise on policy, vowing that he will be by the time the party votes for its new leader on April 14. “You will know,” he said, “what Marc Garneau stands for in terms of policy on the vast majority of issues of the day.”

Was that a shot at anyone in particular? Asked in a news conference afterward if he was hinting at a lack of precision from Trudeau, Garneau wouldn’t be drawn into a direct criticism of the guy he’s trying to somehow beat. The theme that Liberals should be demanding a lot more of the leadership aspirants was echoed by Hall Findlay (“This is a question of substance, a question of experience…”) and Deborah Coyne (“Don’t settle for vague platitudes…”).

The ginger atmosphere around the Jan. 20 debate in Vancouver and the genteel format used for today’s in Winnipeg sure didn’t test the candidates on those serious terms. The Liberal party has three more debates scheduled, one later this month in the Toronto area, another next month in Halifax and a final outing in Montreal. That’s three more chances to showcase these potential leaders and not, as was mostly the case today, the décor.

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