Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Debates matter and playing to an audience that is not there is daft

Invariably I end up changing the channel whenever representatives of the major political parties sit down to discuss something. There is no ebb and flow of debate. It is almost always people repeating the same talking point over and over. If you heard their opening salvo, most of the time you have heard everything there is to hear.

Now I get it. The various parties hope that some sound bite is picked up and replayed for a larger audience and by saying the same thing over and over again the party representative assures that it is the point that the party wants to get across and not something else. However, such a strategy is the anti-thesis of the old adage that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. The parties act as if the people who are not watching are far more important than the people that do watch. After all, no one with half a brain or any manners is impressed by someone repeating the same point ad nauseum and ignoring everything else that is said.

Of course, the Liberals carried such a strategy to absurd lengths during last year's English language debate. After having watched Ignatieff give a new stump speech at every campaign stop, the Liberals picked the debate, of all times, to have Ignatieff endlessly repeat the same talking points. In doing so, Ignatieff endeared himself to no one who actually watched the debate and 3.8 million Canadians watched the debate. The problems with the Liberal debate strategy did not stop there. Having Ignatieff endlessly repeat common Liberal talking points all but eliminated the chances of Ignatieff delivering a knockout blow. It is easy to defend what you know is coming. When attacking, the element of surprise is important.

The post modern notion that somehow what really matters is who wins the spin wars in days after the debate suffered a fatal blow during last years debate. If you look back at the debate coverage, Harper was anointed the winner by the pundits and pollsters alike. The Conservatives won the spin war if you will. However, anyone watching the debate knew that it was Layton who landed the knock out blow. The NDP were handsomely rewarded. After the debate, the NDP surged in polls and Liberal vote collapsed. When you are in a debate the best strategy is to debate and not count on your party's spin doctors being able to convince people who did not bother to watch that you won.

This is how I summed up last year's debate two days after the debate took place.


Debate highlights

The key to shutting down an opponent's attack is a quick fact laden response. Silences, pauses, stumbling starts and long drawn out explanations are all deadly. Stephen Harper was particularly successful in fending off attacks and is generally pretty good in this regard albeit not because his responses are substantive but because his delievery is polished. However, the best example of a defensive action on the night was by Duceppe. It was both polished and substantive. Harper mounted a formidable attack on the gun registry and Duceppe torn the talking point to shreds.

Stephen Harper: But what farmers and hunters keep asking is why every time there's a crime problem in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, there's suddenly more rules slapped on and more registrations slapped onto them in rural Canada. That has not been an effective measure to control crime. Every single elected police officer in the House of Commons has voted against the long gun registry, we need to focus on crime and on gun control that works and cost effective.

Duceppe: I would say that most of the Bloc members are in rural sectors. And the question between rural sectors and the city. Calgary is not a rural sector and you are against that eh? So when I look at the results that say 80% of people elected in Quebec support the gun registry, 62% of people elected in the rest of Canada want to abolish the gun registry. The real division was between Canada and Quebec that day.

Mounting an attack is different. You want to slow things down and you clearly lay out the issue. If you successfully wound your opponent, let him flounder. However, if your opponent is about to finish or is simply trying to run out the clock, do not be afraid to quickly interject. You want to draw out his answer as much as possible. Layton's attack on Ignatieff's attendance record was easily the best executed attack of the night. It was text book.

Layton: I have to pick up on something Mr. Ignatieff said, he said before you have to walk the walk and be a strong leader, and respect parliament, I've got to ask you then, why do you have the worst attendance record of any member of the house of Parliament? If you want to be Prime Minister, you've got to learn how to be a member of the House of Commons first. You know most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion.

Ignatieff: Mr. Layton, I don't surrender to anybody in respect for the institution of parliament and my obligation to the people that put me there. So don't give me lessons on respect for democracy (Layton interjecting) don't give me lessons

Layton: Where were you, where were you when I was standing up to Mr. Harper and voting against his policies, and you weren't in the chamber? You missed 70 percent of the votes, I think you need to understand a little more about how our democracy works that's my only point.

Easily the dumbest comment of the night was by Jack Layton. He said to Stephen Harper

"you used to care about the environment".

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