Liberal Leadership Debate Recap
I'm not going to comment on the Ignatieff versus Rae spitting match on debate procedure because the whole argument strikes me as a bit juvenile, and it takes away from what was an amazing opportunity to listen to two of the leadership candidates outline their vision for the party, and the country, on a wide range of topics. If the leadership debates are anything like today's forum, Liberals are in for a treat, because this was far more entertaining than anything we saw during the 2006 race (or the 2006 LPCA kick-off debate which featured Joe Fontana, Paul Zed, and Clifford Blais among others). With the media banned, I became a journalist for the afternoon and brought my notebook with me - I share the highlights with Liberals here:
Dominic - "when my wife and I arrived in Toronto last night, I was very pleased to see the CN Tower still there; I was worried Jim Flaherty would have sold it for scrap parts by now."
Leblanc went on to say that he's in the race to win and that he's running because he believes the party needs to reconnect with rural voters, francophones, new Canadians, and Western Canadians, amongst others.
Ignatieff, meanwhile, said that the number one priority of the party was to win back the 900,000 Liberals who stayed home - "the minute we get them back, we're back". He signalled his support for a 308 riding strategy, a policy seconded by LeBlanc later during the debates.
What will you do to keep in touch with ridings?
LeBlanc argued that we need to "make membership mean something" - he believes that it's important for the leader and MPs to spend more time in the ridings than in the foyer of the House of Commons.
Ignatieff shared similar views (warning: this is a common theme during the debate), and said that ridings want "face time" with the leader, something he'd provide.
How would you help the party, caucus and campaign team work together during campaigns?
LeBlanc - "the French campaign material the party sent to me last election was great, but...I politely told them there was no BQ candidate running in my riding". Dominic went on to say that he'd rather see a more micro-targeting implemented by central campaign in terms of their message.
Ignatieff argued that it was important to start preparing for the next election from day one - "I'll put people in a room together in Ottawa and force them to come up with a strategy."
Would you lower the voting age to 16?
Both candidates agree the idea would have some merit but are against it.
Ignatieff - "I'm trying to think about when I was 16. I wasn't ready."
Leblanc meanwhile, said that he initially liked the idea but many of his Quebec colleagues cautioned that the "Oui" side would have won the 1995 referendum had 16 years olds been allowed to vote, souring him on the idea.
This question also featured one of the funniest moments of the debate, when Ignatieff said "the most important part of leadership is succession planning" (well, the man has been helping Dion with that over the past 3 years...) and added that it's always important for a leader to bring in future heirs to stand behind him. At this point he hap-hazardly gestured to Dominic and drew a big laugh.
Why don't more MPs come to exec meetings like this?
LeBlanc mentioned that Chretien always took attendance at caucus and Cabinet meetings, and that he would be equally rigorous at ensuring MPs attended important events like this. This marked one of about 14 times LeBlanc name dropped "Jean Chretien" during the debate - by my count, both candidates mentioned Dion once, and never did the words "Paul Martin" cross either of their lips.
Ignatieff said that he liked Carolyn Bennett's idea of a "mandate letter" for all critics and Cabinet Ministers that would explicitly define attending these sorts of events as part of their job description.
The Tories will run attack ads on the next leader. They will attack Ignatieff for being out of the country for so many years and LeBlanc over his lack of name recognition. How will you respond to these attacks?
Ignatieff showed real passion here, saying that: "Harper thinks you're a snob if you go to the opera. He says you're not a good Canadian if you haven't lived in Canada. Well, Stephen Harper doesn't get to say who's a good Canadian and who isn't. I'm proud of the achievements I've accomplished abroad."
LeBlanc, meanwhile, said that it's important to "fight fire with fire" - the Tory war room is preparing attack ads right now and the Liberals can't allow for a repeat of January 2007 when "we allowed Mr. Dion to be unfairly defined and we didn't respond". As for the claim that Canadians do not know him, he argued that they would by the end of this campaign.
This topic featured one of the few policy contrasts of the afternoon, with LeBlanc reminding people that he voted against the first mission extension, and Iggy saying that he voted for the initial t extension and that he "was part of the negotiations to secure a parliamentary compromise" on the 2011 extension.
You both promise change - how will you deliver it?
Dominic admitted that "the country wants the party to change the way we do business". He argued that it's time for the LPC to reconnect with, and re-engage Canadians. He pointed to the success of the "50 state strategy" and said it was important to send young field workers out to places where the Liberals weren't necessarily expected to win. In short, he believes less time should be devoted to "Ottawa strategy sessions" and more time should be spent "on the ground".
Ignatieff argued that Liberals need to recognize that "we are not the natural governing party anymore", and that "we should stop hanging on past achievements". Instead, he believes it's important for the party to offer a vision of the future to Canadians on important issues.
Ignatieff - "The voters have spoken on The Green Shift"
LeBlanc - "The Green Shift was a major hurdle to our candidates in many ridings across the country"
LeBlanc landed an indirect shot here, saying "one of the proudest moments I had as an MP was to stand up and vote against Canadian participation in the Iraq war". He also segued into an idea of his to offer student debt relief to young people who work at NGOs.
Ignatieff agreed "our party should make it easier for Canadians to do public service overseas" and landed a good shot at Ianbrodieleak-gate saying the Harper government "showed a mix of malice and incompetence combined".
Gender Equality? (en francais)
LeBlanc says he liked Dion's policy of having 1/3 female candidates but feels they were too often selected to run in hopelessly unwinable ridings.
Ignatieff also liked this policy and would love to extend it to 40% or 50%. He commented that Harper was very smart to appoint so many female Cabinet Ministers.
Israel, Palestine, and all that fun
Both candidates engaged in a bit of a tango dance to offer a diplomatic answer to this question and both showed themselves to be very knowledgeable on the topic. There were a lot of foreign policy questions (many of which I haven't recaped here) and I must say that Ignatieff sounded very knowledgeable on all of them - the man certainly knows the issues inside out.
How can we become relevant in rural Canada?
Ignatieff was solid on foreign policy but on this topic, LeBlanc hit an absolute home run. He began with a joke - "I have 6 traffic lights in my entire riding...(laughs)...but when I began as an MP we only had 2!". He then went on to rattle off a list of issues relevant to rural Canadians, from tourism, to fisheries, to clean water, to seasonal workers. On every one, he offered a solution and attacked the Harper government's neglect of the issue. He finished by recounting a QP exchange where Harper told him that the Tories had offered subway pass tax credits and LeBlanc replied "the closest subway to my riding is in Boston". My recap probably doesn't do his answer justice, but it brought the house down - and, remember, this was a Toronto audience.
Ignatieff, meanwhile, said that appealing to rural voters was "about more than agricultural policy". He added that: "we've gone on the wrong side of a lot of issues" and then pointed to gun control as an example saying that "I want to be in a party that respects the rights of legitimate gun owners - it's an issue of freedom".
Truth be told, this example might have been a messy one for Iggy to bring up had the cameras been there.
What do you like most about the other candidates in this race?
Paddy Torsney asked this one, bringing back memories of the English debate. And, cribbing notes from Elizabeth May, both candidates on stage offered variations of "his family" when complementing Rae (with Michael adding that "he's the best piano player in the House of Commons").
For each other, both men were glowing in their praise. Ignatieff said he admired Dominic's sense of humour, saying that "I am a notorious humour-free zone"...he then butchered a self-deprecating joke about being forced to tell a joke at gun point...which was kind of funny in a meta way, given the context. He also praised the answer LeBlanc gave to the "rural" question earlier.
LeBlanc said that Michael was one of the best parliamentary performers he'd seen in his 8 years in Ottawa and that he had an amazing "sense of Canada's place in the world, and understanding of global security and human rights".
Now would likely be a good time to comment that the mood was nothing but positive throughout the entire debate - the two were constantly nodding at each other's answers, joking around with each other on stage, and their body language hinted at nothing but positive vibes.
What would you do for apprenticeships?
This excellent question allowed Liberals to meet "Mark the Chef" - Canada's version of "Joe the Plumber". Ignatieff related very well to this question, saying that his son was training to be a dry waller, and arguing that post-secondary education was about much more than university.
LeBlanc suggested that federal dollars must be used so that businesses are given tax breaks for hiring apprentices.
Both candidates promised to be positive, to unite the party, and all that feel-good stuff. Kum Ba ya...
Everyone I talked to agreed that this was a thoroughly entertaining debate, and I must say that both candidates exceeded my expectations. I really hope we get as many of these debates as possible during the leadership race because all the undecided Liberals in the crowd I talked to afterwards agreed they learned a lot about the candidates from it.
Watching this debate certainly re-enforced the decision I've very recently made about which candidate to support - but, don't fear loyal readers, this strip tease will be a short one...