Debate can be a turning point

Ontario’s political leaders face off tonight in a crucial debate, but can a 90-minute televised confrontation still move votes in an era when social media reigns and many electors will reach a verdict without sacrificing a warm spring evening?

Ontario’s political leaders face off tonight in a crucial debate, but can a 90-minute televised confrontation still move votes in an era when social media reigns and many electors will reach a verdict without sacrificing a warm spring evening?

Against all odds, the answer remains “yes.”

In fact, a well-timed debate moment can carry right into the next Parliament.

It was only three years ago that Jack Layton essentially catapulted to opposition leader with a well-honed charge against a gobsmacked Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff.

The late NDP leader seized on an issue that is still a matter of fierce debate between his party and Liberals today, even in a dramatically redrawn House of Commons with Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau having replaced the 2011 antagonists.

Ignatieff was inexplicably caught off guard by Layton telling him he had the worst attendance record in the Commons — even though the story had only recently been highlighted in national media.

“Most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion,’’ Layton told Ignatieff.

The remark worked on a number of levels.

It played to Ignatieff’s perceived sense of entitlement, his caricature of a man who had come home for political power who didn’t need to work to gain Canadians’ trust.

New Democrats are using the same argument against Trudeau.

But the issue is larger.

Mulcair is doing his job as an Opposition leader, and doing it well.

But he won’t be running for another four years as Opposition leader.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that Mulcair’s work holding the Conservatives accountable is not being noticed outside the closed shop that is Ottawa because the NDP Leader still has work to do to make himself known to Canadians, a problem the oft absent Trudeau does not have.

Mulcair’s questioning of Harper has played to rave reviews from the handful who are actually watching him, those in the media outlet offices across the street, a gang that feverishly tweets question period bon mots back and forth with rooting interventions from party workers.

To most Canadians, question period is where maturity and decorum go to die and, if they think of it at all, they think of a bunch of adult jerks rolling around in a metaphorical sandbox.

But Mulcair is doing what an Opposition leader is elected to do.

Trudeau, as the leader of a tiny third party in a majority government, does not get the time or prominence in the afternoon theatre to make a difference and he is banking on the fact that most voters see Ottawa under Harper as the problem, not the solution.

So he goes to where the votes are.

Since last autumn’s throne speech, there have been 91 question periods.

According to the NDP, Mulcair has been there for almost two of three (64.8 per cent), Harper less than half the time (44 per cent), while Trudeau has missed almost two of three (38.5 per cent).

But New Democrats say their leader can walk and chew gum at the same time, getting out to meet voters and doing the job of diligent opposition leader.

In an online ad, the NDP says in the first 387 days since Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal party, Mulcair had spent 146 days on the road, attending 394 events in 94 cities in 124 ridings, while still finding time “to show up to work on the Hill.’’

And then, in a nod to the Layton line: “Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau expects Canadians to promote him for ducking his responsibilities in Parliament?’’

The Trudeau team shrugs.

They maintain no one can credibly attack Trudeau’s work ethic, as New Democrats attacked Ignatieff’s. Ignatieff was an opposition leader in a minority Parliament, Trudeau presides over a third party in a majority Parliament. The dynamic is not comparable.

Whether voters believe their politicians should more regularly clock into the Commons for their work shifts or realize Ottawa is most attractive when one is leaving it is something that will play out next year federally.

Provincially, the focus will be on appearance — particularly that of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath who must look like they could be premiers, not opposition leaders.

Neither party leader can script a Layton-Ignatieff moment, but it is that unpredictability that draws us to debates. And sometimes a moment emerges that an opposition party so relishes, it can be not only a springboard to electoral gain but a narrative to ride well into the next legislature.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

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