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Debate 2000 had all the signs of a memorable event

Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day thought he made a winning choice by holding up a sign reading "NO 2-TIER HEALTH CARE."

Stockwell Day's prop didn't get him the props he had hoped for

Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day holds up a sign to make a point on national health care during the English leaders' debate at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Other than Brian Mulroney's blistering attack on John Turner ahead of the 1984 election, leaders' debates often turn out to be forgettable shouting matches. 

But in 2000, Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day introduced a new debate tactic.

"Anybody watch TV last night?" he asked the crowd assembled at a rally in Woodstock, Ont., the next day.

Day had used a prop in the debate: a white sign, hand-lettered in black marker, reading NO 2-TIER HEALTH CARE.

'Flair for the dramatic'

In the 2000 federal leaders' debate, leader Stockwell Day makes his point with a visual aid. 1:18

And at a stop in nearby Stratford, Ont., Day revisited the event for those who had missed it on TV. 

"No two-tier health care. I even tried to hold it up last night for him," he said. "We think he's getting the message."

He was trying to combat a TV ad, sponsored by the Liberals under Jean Chrétien, that claimed his party would open the door to private health care in Canada.

On The National the next night, reporter Eric Sorensen said Day's "willingness to flout the rules" of the debate by using a sign had made for a memorable moment. 

"Answer the question, sir," Day had said repeatedly, leaving his podium and pointing his finger at Chrétien to demand that he retract the ad's claims about the Alliance's intentions.

"It didn't help Day's cause that the other leaders are also telling Canadians the Alliance would move the country closer to two-tier health care," noted Sorensen.

Day denied the characterization of his sign as a "prop."

"I respected the rules," he told reporters. "I showed my notes to the prime minister at one point, because he obviously doesn't seem to get the picture that people want truth in this campaign."

'I'm not a thief'

Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day thinks he won the debate, but viewer polls disagree. 1:26
  

Two days later, public opinion polls regarding the debate had been published.

"Polls show his little sign didn't reassure voters," said reporter Saša Petricic.

Pollster John Wright of Ipsos-Reid explained why.

"It's almost like holding up a sign that says 'I'm not a thief,'" he explained. "I mean, what are people going to talk about the next day?" 

By introducing the topic of two-tier health care, Day had given the Liberals an opening to make it a central issue, rather than Chrétien's debate performance.