Federal Liberals opt for interviews over leadership debate

Nine federal Liberal leadership candidates met in Winnipeg on Saturday in what the party called a "Davos-style" format, where each candidate had to answer specific questions put to them by the moderator.

Format could trigger 1st round of dropouts, pollster Nik Nanos says

Liberal party leadership candidates Joyce Murray, Justin Trudeau, Marc Garneau, David Bertschi, Martha Hall Findlay, Deborah Coyne, Karen McCrimmon, George Takach and Martin Cauchon at the end of the Liberal Party of Canada 'Davos-style' question-and-answer session in Winnipeg, Saturday, February 2, 2013. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Nine federal Liberal leadership candidates met in Winnipeg on Saturday in what the party called a "Davos-style" format, a one-on-one question-and-answer session.

Former Liberal candidate Harvey Locke, who ran and lost in the Calgary byelection to Conservative Joan Crockatt last November, conducted the one-on-one interviews before a sold-out crowd of 400 Liberal supporters.

The nine candidates vying for the party's top job are MPs Marc Garneau, Joyce Murray and Justin Trudeau, former MPs Martin Cauchon and Martha Hall Findlay, lawyers David Bertschi, Deborah Coyne and George Takach, and retired Lt.-Col. Karen McCrimmon.

The candidates answered questions submitted by Liberals in the region with themes ranging from agriculture and rural issues, transportation, foreign ownership, crime prevention and export of natural resources.

Locke even asked the candidates for personal revelations. Marc Garneau, for example, said he loves to do household chores. "I love to vacuum. There is nothing more satisfying than sucking up a dust buffalo with a vacuum cleaner."

The candidates reiterated their positions on issues such as justice – more prevention, less emphasis on prison-building – and marijuana – Joyce Murray and George Takach are in favour of legalization.

"To me, it's all about stopping the violence, Takach said.

"When you have a black market it creates a wonderful haven for criminals that we have to stop."

The candidates were unanimous in criticizing the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda. But Martha Hall-Findlay said Liberals have to shoulder some blame for voting in favour of some of the Conservative bills.

"We had these crime bills coming up for us to vote on and we were saying, 'We know they're wrong... we know we need to focus on prevention, but, well, we don't want to look like we're soft on crime,"' Findlay said.

Justin Trudeau touted community policing and youth sports as ways to prevent kids from falling into trouble with the law.

The format, described by the party as an opportunity for the candidates "to introduce themselves to the public early on in the debate process," was met with mixed reviews in the audience.

Brent Neill, a longtime Winnipeg Liberal who is backing Joyce Murray, said the event was dull.

"It's a really dry format in terms of no real interaction between the candidates," he said. "It's a really safe format so the frontrunner can't make a mistake or have anyone else question them."

But some liked the fact that all the candidates were given 11 consecutive minutes in the spotlight.

"There was equal time for everyone and they were allowed to get their views out with the same questions, but I do think that it probably wasn't the best at engagement," said Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe, who hadn't yet decided which candidate to support.

Idle No More protesters interrupted the question-and-answer session but were quickly taken outside by security, reported CBC's reporter in Winnipeg Ryan Hicks. One protester told reporters they didn't feel respected because aboriginal issues were not a theme of the meeting.

A crowded race

Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research, told CBC News this format may trigger "a first round of dropouts from the race — because if one cannot do well in this candidate-friendly format, then you are likely to be a weak candidate."

And while this format lacked the media appeal as a debate, Nanos said it gives Liberal supporters a chance to "size up" the candidates a little more closely.

According to Nanos, "there will be increasing pressure to narrow the field to bring greater focus on candidates with the greatest likelihood to win the leadership."

Overall fundraising efforts will play a role in determining how long a candidate can afford to stay in the race for.

Trudeau currently leads the pack in fundraising efforts with $673,156.53 in donations from individuals up to the end of December 2012, according to Elections Canada data.

Running a distant second is Martha Hall Findlay with $149,77.45, followed by Marc Garneau with $122, 616.11. The others are as follows:

  • George Takach: $106,233.00 (9.2%)
  • Joyce Murray: $56,554.06 (4.9%)
  • Karen McCrimmon: $20,275.00 (1.8%)
  • Deborah Coyne: $16,355.00 (1.4%)

In total, the candidates had raised $1,153,535.11 by the end of December.

Liberal leadership hopefuls will debate each other next in Toronto on Feb. 16.

A new leader will be chosen on April 14 in Ottawa.

With files from The Canadian Press