Soon after the Alliance debate began last night in Halifax, Preston Manning started sounding inept. In his opening statement he said we need a new approach to Canadian affairs, and that there is one word that describes what we need. That word, he said, is "Leadership that wins," which baffled viewers of mathematical bent.
Later he managed to demonstrate that leadership is precisely what he wants to avoid showing. When the issue of abortion came up, he jumped nimbly out of the way and said that what we need to worry about is reproductive technology.
On federal control of health care, he said the power should go to the provinces, and that if any provincial government mishandles the matter, its own people will punish it -- no need for Ottawa to intervene. On pegging the Canadian dollar to the U.S. dollar, he said the weak dollar was all the fault of the Liberals and when the Alliance fixes the economy, the dollar won't be a problem.
His closing statement made all of the above seem eloquent. He went the metaphor route, combined with the local dialect ploy. He said he had spoken of the leadership with an old sailor, and that man had declared: "As fur as I'm concerned, him's that builds the ship and knows her best, gets to sail it." He then explained that he built Reform, sailed it onto the Official Opposition benches, then redesigned it, and, just like the old tar said (he repeated the quotation), he was the best man for captain.
That was the evening's rhetorical highlight, though it was almost equalled by Tom Long's twice-made statement that Canada (or maybe just the Atlantic provinces) can, with Alliance policies, "leapfrog over the Americans" or by Keith Martin's insistence that under his leadership the Alliance will make the Atlantic provinces into "an eastern tiger" of economic development.
Seldom in their history have the beleaguered Atlantic provinces been so thoroughly sprayed with optimistic promises.
Jason Moscovitz, the CBC's chief political correspondent, asked Stockwell Day if he was planning to kiss all the Atlantic votes goodbye.
Not a bit of it, said Mr. Day. He noted that in the recent St. John's West by-election their candidate's vote had increased from 2% (in the last general election) to 4%. That was not huge, he admitted, but in politics it's the trend that counts.
The tone of the evening was distinctly non-confrontational. There was nothing we could call a debate. Most of the candidates agreed with what the others said, but more so. True, Tom, one of them would say, but you also should point out that ... I agree with what Stockwell said, but I would add ...
These gentlemen are, on the evidence of their performance, good chaps.
Nobody will call them vicious. A vicious politician says: "I'll do anything to win." These fellows say: "I'll do anything to maintain my dignity." The "debaters" were trying so hard to look like responsible statesmen that anyone would be churlish who complained of being bored.
They did, however, exhibit an unfortunate tendency to hide under the table at the first sign of trouble.
Robert Fife, the Ottawa bureau chief of the National Post, asked Mr. Day how he would go about introducing the referendum on abortion that he had discussed; and, further, if the referendum led to making abortion illegal, what penalties would be imposed on women and their doctors?
Mr. Day jumped so far back that he almost left the building. He said he certainly doesn't want to be negative about anything, he didn't see why anyone should even discuss retribution, and in any case he won't be pressing for a referendum. He hopes that the citizens will bring the idea forth and Parliament will then follow their wishes. He seems also to imagine that no one will be punished for breaking whatever law the referendum, if it happens, creates. On this issue the opinion polls have, so far as we can tell, totally neutered him.
During the hour there was no hint in the air of anything remotely like a new idea, but that wasn't the point. The purpose of the debates is to display the candidates, so that Alliance voters can guess which one will lead best.
On the matter of demonstrated passion, there was little to choose among them, although Keith Martin seemed more carefree about the issues than anyone else. Their manner and tone rarely implied that anything of significance was going on here. A viewer of their little discussion might be justified in conjecturing that the Alliance leadership is not one of the more important jobs in the country. People get more excited about acquiring a Canadian Tire franchise.
Canadian Alliance: desperately seeking mediocrity (June 26, 2000)
The 2002 Canadian Alliance leadership convention (March 21, 2002)