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For Liberal debaters, it’s less about how they act and more about who they are

Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau poses with staff at the Maple Health Centre in Vaughan, Ont., on Dec. 4, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In my home, the Ravens-Patriots game will be the big event this Sunday. But the Liberal Leadership debate will draw a crowd too.

For the better part of 120 minutes, 9 candidates will discuss 14 different questions. The quick math says that this formula will produce a show short on energy and long on rehearsed lines.

But let's allow hope to trump what experience tells us.

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Having helped politicians prepare for events like this in the past, my thoughts are drawn to the challenges and opportunities for each competitor.

First, it's imperative that debate preparation evolves because voters are consuming debates differently. There's always a strong temptation to focus on how your candidate acts, but viewers are more interested in who they are.

The search for authenticity is a powerful thing, and voters are good at telling the difference between real authenticity (sad that these words go together) and the practiced kind. Many partisans are still drawn to whomever they feel most "looks the part." But non-partisan voters are hesitant about those who look like they could be playing a part.

Inevitably, as the front-runner, Justin Trudeau has the most to lose in this debate. But in truth the format means there is little risk that he will blunder, or face a sustained attack. Trudeau skeptics wonder if he can stand up to a verbal slugfest, as opposed to the other kind, and whether he has depth on policy issues. But the 30-second version of doing this likely won't really strain him.

A more interesting test will be how he treats the other candidates. He's assumed to be more marketable than the others, but he also needs to look like someone who makes sense as their leader. More generous and gracious than people might expect a youngish front-runner to be. A chance to replace the Justin who speaks of himself in the third person with the Justin whose maturity and instinct for team building comes through. If this is in his heart, it should come out on the stage, and would serve him very well.

Marc Garneau has been accumulating respect throughout his life, and so it's no surprise that this is continuing through his leadership campaign. While his path to victory would require major stumbles by Mr. Trudeau, to be in position to benefit he needs to separate himself further from the rest of the field. The format is in many ways his biggest obstacle: he will have few opportunities to let people have a glimpse into his soul. Some might urge him to use whatever moments he has to show he can throw a punch. He'd be far better off letting people continue to see the humour and gentility that accompanies his maturity and clarity of thought on issues. There's far too ready a consensus that "nasty works" –– there have been too few experiments with "nice" to really know this.

Martha Hall Findlay has been doing a first rate job of grabbing a share of voice. She's been effective at challenging the party to talk about practical ideas, rather than focus on packaging or values. Success for her in this debate will be about taking that fight to Mr. Trudeau – if anyone can afford to get up in his grill a bit, it's Ms. Hall Findlay. Arguably, she can't afford not to.

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Of the remaining six candidates, one or two will likely sparkle and surprise. But the larger question is whether the party can spare the 66 per cent of the air time this group will consume. Some might say more choice is always better, and it is certainly very democratic. But too many choices can drive voters away; something that happens in the consumer marketplace. The Liberals can't afford to squander the platform that is this race, and that means putting a spotlight on their strongest talent. Over time, those in this group who prove unable to attract a following might serve their party best by exiting the race and letting the Liberals shape a more compelling story and a more effective vetting process. Tomorrow is their opportunity to show that they are adding to, and not subtracting from, the value of this process.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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