Stephen Harper and Elizabeth May prove adept at the TV reality of debates

An awful lot is made of TV debates during elections, both as the crystallization of democracy and a change from the canned daily tedium of a long campaign. But they are also just TV, and reality, on TV, does sometimes matter less than delivery, as Stephen Harper demonstrated Thursday.

Thursday's debate was what Canadians probably wanted: Just earnest enough, without American-style viciousness

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There are distillate moments in these productions, and last night's was at about the 39-minute mark.

Stephen Harper was under three-way attack on his environmental record, and was protesting rather counter-intuitively that his government has been very green indeed, and has reduced greenhouse gases, and is not at all the thrall of business.

At one point, after batting away the sputtering and outrage and posturing from the other podiums (Thomas Mulcair, in case you didn't know, authored "overarching sustainable development legislation" as a Quebec cabinet minister), Harper wrapped up some point or other, turned to his adversaries, cocked his shoulders, and grinned.

That grin seemed pretty real, especially next to Mulcair's rictus. A former prosecutor that man may be, and he does have the odd moment, but he looked like his face was going to melt under the studio lights.

Harper, though, wasn't even sweating. It's as though he'd realized that this whole give-and-take debate business, as much as it goes against his cellular structure, isn't so bad after all, especially in a field like last night's.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, right, listens to NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair make a point during the first leaders debate Thursday in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau didn't grin much, if he grinned at all. Probably because it's hard to grin and complain at the same time, and Trudeau spent most of the two hours complaining. He complained about Harper's lack of leadership, and about how Conservatives "mercilessly attack" him, and warned how nobody seems to understand what a threat the separatists still are, and generally banged away at generalities.

At one point, he actually used the word "eschewing." Not really a word for the people, eschewing.

"Nobody believes you!" he wailed at Harper once, from off-camera.

The reality of debates

Now, none of this is to say Trudeau or Mulcair would be incompetent prime ministers. Maybe they'd be fine. They just don't seem very good at TV debates, and this was after all a TV debate, even if it was sponsored by Maclean's magazine and hosted by a print journalist.

An awful lot is made of TV debates during elections; the very crystallization of democracy, and so on.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

And, true, they are sort of a refreshing change from the canned daily tedium of the longest election campaign in human history.

But they're also just TV. They're impressionistic, and they require some acting skill. Reality, on TV, does sometimes matter less than delivery. A TV reporter could tell you that.

Relaxed and grinning and nonchalant and not stumbling and not cramping your cheek muscles are all necessary in TV, and Stephen Harper can do all those things pretty well.

Actually, there were two really good performers up there last night: The Conservative leader and Elizabeth May, who heads a parliamentary caucus of herself (plus one), but who managed to play leader of the opposition.

May is brainy and wonky and thinks fast and speaks in whole sentences. She doesn't whinge; she is a remarkably fluid polemicist.

She was also the only one on stage who consistently referred to Stephen Harper as what he is: "Mr. Prime Minister." Good for her. Respect goes a long way in debate.

She did a neat job of gutting Harper's rote bragging about Canada's globally admired economy: You are cherry-picking your data, she informed him. Compared to other G7 countries, we are doing very poorly indeed: "We are in recession for the second time on your watch."

Not just the economy

At the same time, she pointed out, correctly, that there are more serious issues in a recessionary economy than whether the government is borrowing more than it spends, which it has done for many years in any event.

She told Harper that whoever advised him it is constitutionally sound to simply stop appointing senators "needs to go back to law school."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May accused Stephen Harper of 'cherry-picking' data on the economy. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

She's sharp enough to know that the pursual of regime change in Libya, which Canada bought into, meant supporting rebel forces laced with extremists, and that the destabilization of Mali was a direct result. She managed to make that relevant to Canada's current pursual of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Whether May's data were any more honestly presented than Harper's is beside the point. Both of them are adepts. It would probably have been more interesting if the other two weren't there to interrupt.

As for the debate itself, which was supposed to be a stunning departure from the usual CBC-CTV-Global consortium, it was fine, but not really much different.

Paul Wells, a fine print journalist, plowed woodenly through the scripted stuff, but came alive when he intervened on policy matters, and he managed not to intervene too much.

And despite the sweaty, rapid, compressed commentary during breaks on City TV by striving young reporters in love with the prizefight trope, the whole show was what Canadians probably want: Just earnest enough, no American-style viciousness, more ad argumentum than ad hominem.

But, um, Stephen Harper is the prime minister. And he looked like one.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.