They gathered in a set that looked like a Canadian nationalist's fantasy of a chapel, complete with a colossal red maple leaf adorning the floor. Four politicians in striped ties and the suits of funeral directors stood at lecterns before a half-circle of arched neo-Gothic tombstones, apparently made of marbleized cardboard. "Debate 2004" was lettered where the names of the deceased would normally appear.
Then, for two dreadful hours on Tuesday night, they did their best to torture the electorate into submission and kill off any hope of useful argument.
While trying to look their best in the English-language TV debate, the party leaders showed Canadian public life at its worst. They gave us a festival of interruptions, an orgy of naughty-boy rudeness. The ethos of Question Period and the sound-bite scrum has poisoned their souls. They think the word "debate" means a slanging match. Did their mothers bring them up to talk like that? I've seen more mutual respect in taped discussions from a hospital for the criminally insane.
Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and Paul Martin interrupted each other so often that they drowned out even their own points. Often two men spoke at once, occasionally three, and now and then I thought I detected four -- which meant that Stephen Harper, the most polite of the leaders, was infected by the spirit of the event and joined a four-way gang bang.
Under the frightened incompetence of Anna Maria Tremonti's chairmanship, political rhetoric ran wild. This was obvious almost at the beginning, and Tremonti should have banged on her table, stopped the proceedings dead and told everybody to behave. Once or twice she complained that two men were talking at once but mainly she was satisfied to be their enabler and let things run their course. Perhaps she reasoned that we would blame the TV executives and politicians who set the format, since they built in free-for-all sections. Even so, she or her producer should have seen where it was going.
The viewers deserved at least a fighting chance. As one of my colleagues remarked, dinner party hosts would never tolerate this behaviour from guests. Yet millions of citizens were supposed to accept it from their leaders.
In this context nothing approaching discussion could take place. That was okay with Layton and Duceppe. They were anxious above all to revive bear-baiting, with Martin as the bear. Though, to be fair, they had a few other points: Layton, for example, wanted to mention his curious affection for green cars, and Duceppe demanded that even more industrial grants go to Quebec.
As for Martin, he continued his policy of adjusting his personality from moment to moment. Sometimes he was slumming, like a clever corporate manager explaining himself to dolts who own shares. Sometimes, when smiling, he gave an unconvincing performance as a genial, good-humoured fellow. Sometimes he was clearly trying to keep his fury under control.
His emphatic and almost hysterical opinions came across as so highly specialized that they began to sound like obsessions. His priority is health care; and, within health care, shortening the waiting time for medical attention. Nothing is more important, he said, and he seemed to think that saying it over and over would prove his commitment. That turned our thoughts to his record: If waiting times are such a big thing, and fixable, why didn't the Liberals fix them during 11 years in government? He never explained.
Early on, Craig Oliver of CTV asked Martin why we should believe him when he says he didn't know about the sponsorship corruption in Quebec. Martin changed the subject. He still hasn't thought of an answer to that question, which demonstrates, at the very least, an alarming lack of foresight.
Harper was evasive on health, because he has to be. He wants to bring intelligent management to health care but he knows that much of the electorate has passionately committed itself to a system that makes no sense and refuses to work. Moreover, voters have been encouraged to believe that anyone with a challenging opinion must be a dangerous madman. Dealing with these views is complicated at best, and Harper soon realized (if he didn't know in advance) that no thought requiring more than eight consecutive words had any chance of being heard.
Solemn political commentators like to chastise voters for ignoring what are loosely called "ideas" and judging candidates on style. But Tuesday evening demonstrated that our leaders, even when given two free hours, can't get anywhere near a discussion of ideas. Style was the only element on view, therefore the only way citizens could judge the debate.
Speaking of citizens, how many survivors were still on the island when the two hours finally ended? My guess is that large numbers of them switched off with each passing minute, disgusted by this national display of incivility. At the end I sensed there were few left to share my misery. But since we've suffered together we should probably form a support group, tiny as it may be. We'll demand medals from the Governor-General for citizenship beyond the call of duty.