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The Federal Debate: a Botched Performance

In her book Performance Studies in Canada (2017), York University professor Laura Levin (among other scholars) is keen to remind us that, even in Canada, performance is “essential to political culture and, specifically, to the success of individual politicians”. (6) She recalls a particularly performative moment from the 2015 campaign period:

“With the federal election just two months away, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes another public appearance. In the boxing ring. It is the morning of the first election debate, and Trudeau boxes a few rounds with African-American owner Paul Brown at his Boxfit training studio in downtown Toronto (naturally with a handful of photographers and reporters in tow to capture the quotidian moment). When asked about the debate after his workout, he proclaims:

‘I think Canadians need an opportunity to contrast the leaders and our styles and approaches. I’m going to stay focussed on the things that matter to Canadians… That means rolling with the punches and offering a couple of my own’.”

Flash-forward to September 2021.

Amid a fourth wave of the pandemic, a troublesome retreat from Afghanistan, and destructive fires raging throughout the West coast, the five leaders of the major federal parties took the stage at the English-speaking debate. You’d expect drama at its best, wouldn’t you?

But, ultimately (and quite disappointingly), with an overly hurried format and an irritating line-up of question-askers, the anticipated performance fell through.

Canadians were neither informed and educated, nor entertained.


Our neighbors to the South tend to use their televised debates as opportunities for character development. While pushing their platforms, discrediting their opponents, and occasionally attacking each other’s Tweeting habits, candidates construct the image of themselves that they wish American voters to see. The debate is the best opportunity to solidify the candidate’s public image – be it a blunt, non-politician vowing to save the country or America’s favorite grandad promising stability.

With image-building at the core of televised debates, the reality is that ideas and plans are often left behind. The debate has become the ideal environment to conceal policy amid the performance. And with millions of viewers around the country tuning in, expressive catchphrases, one-liners, entrances, exits, and other theatrical tools have made their way to the forefront.

But, last night, the debate organizers must have forgotten that Canadians were tuning in to watch the candidates perform and debate one another. Instead, it seemed as though moderator Shachi Kurl and the 4 invited journalists were the ones debating with the leaders. As soon as any given candidate was asked to speak on an issue, they were quite soon interrupted by the moderator and the microphone was passed onwards.

Mrs. Kurl addressed the leaders at the beginning of the night:

“Leaders, please answer the questions you’re asked. Do not interrupt each other. I don’t want to cut you off, but I will if I have to.”

And she surely stayed true to her word – except she didn’t even give them a chance.

The entire performance felt rushed. A great deal of time was spent on introducing question-askers and journalists, leaving all five candidates with no real opportunity to engage with policy or construct their characters.

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University and chief executive officer of Vox Pop Labs, concluded that, "None of the leaders was able to leverage the debate to win the hearts and minds of their opponents.”

Joh Doyle, a television critic for the Globe and Mail, called the debate a “farce”, an “insult”, and compared it to a bad episode of Family Feud.

Although Steve Allen once said that “Television is the theater of the mindless”, there is a way to use the medium strategically, particularly in the performance of politics. But with less than ten days until people go out to vote, the campaigns will have to search for alternate ways to develop their image in the eyes of Canadians. Having failed to provide Canadians with a fruitful and meaningful English debate, each candidate will be looking for ways to offer a couple of their own punches in the coming days.

Perhaps we will even find Mr. Trudeau, Mr. O’Toole, Mr. Singh, and Mrs. Paul squaring off at the boxing ring in the coming week.

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