Ian Dowbiggin | Sept. 17
For sheer drama, it wasn't Kennedy vs. Nixon. Or even Mulroney vs. Turner. But the first all-leaders debate of this election campaign certainly said a lot about the fortunes of the three political parties vying for power here on P.E.I.
Like all leaders’ debates everywhere, Sept. 16’s was the incumbent government's to lose. And what Tuesday night's performance tells us is that Premier Pat Binns did not lose this debate.
Of course, it could be argued he didn't exactly win. But not losing is as good as winning as far as the Tories are concerned.
From the moment the debate started it was clear that the Tory strategy was not going to change. Their slogan might as well be: accentuate the positive. Binns reassured his audience that health care, education, the economy, and the environment were not in crisis mode, as the Liberals and NDP claim.
When confronted with the evidence that some 7,000 Islanders were without a family doctor, Binns preferred to say the glass was half full, not half empty. What about the 94% of Islanders who DO have a family doctor, he asked?
Binns conceded the health-care system may not be working as well as it might. But the Tory message was: trust us. We've identified the problems and we're working on them.
In fact, whether it's doctor and nurse recruitment, auto insurance, proportional representation, or energy policy, the Tories are able to cite some program or strategy or study already in place to deal with the issue.
The Liberals can squawk all they want about the government's performance. They can accuse the government of being reactive, not pro-active. But the one thing they can't do is argue convincingly that the government is inactive.
For Robert Ghiz, the debate was another opportunity to prove to a skeptical electorate that he has the right stuff. To those who haven't yet seen Ghiz live, he did surprisingly well. Hamstrung by the reputation of being little more than a Parliament Hill aide, he revealed he is an emerging talent on the hustings. Polite but pointed, Ghiz vigorously attacked the government on issue after issue.
But the minute he got close to a really sensitive issue, Ghiz discovered the one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of this election for the Liberals. The liveliest part of the debate was when Ghiz lambasted the Tories' energy policy. That drew the Binns comment that if it hadn't been for Liberal failures when they were in power 10 years ago, his government would have solved the Island's energy woes long ago.
Nothing better illustrated the Liberals' dilemma in this election. As soon as they find a weak link in the Tories' armour, the government retaliates by dredging up the Liberals' own record while in power. Immediately Islanders are reminded that compared with the Catherine Callbeck government, Binns and the Tories smell pretty good.
As for the NDP, when you're at the very bottom, the only place to go is up. Participating in the debate in itself is a victory for the NDP. But Gary Robichaud, the NDP leader, didn't just show up. He deserves good grades for bringing the needs of seniors out of the closet during this election campaign. Unfortunately, when he chants the NDP mantra about government doing more for working men and women he sounds more like a 1950s British trade unionist than someone who seriously wants to get elected in this day and age.
The bottom line about the debate is that Binns proved once again he is the Teflon premier. No matter what Ghiz and Robichaud throw at him, nothing sticks. That means this election's become a race against time for the Liberals. If they don't quickly find an issue that Ghiz can run with, he and they will pay the price come Sept. 29.
Ian Dowbiggin is professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island. Author of four books, including the 1999 Canadian best-seller Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life, he's well-known to Maritime audiences as a controversial radio and television commentator on today's hot-button issues.