PHOTOS: Zzzzzzzzz … Why are these men smiling? Below: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, sneering; Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, smiling unnervingly; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, doing his best to look pugnacious; Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, happy to be there.

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair stayed calm, smiled and looked prime ministerial during last night’s “national” televised leaders’ English-language debate – don’t take my word for that, although I agreed, writers for both the Globe and Mail and the National Post said so too.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau not only managed to show up with his pants on, as a much-quoted Tory insider sneeringly proposed as a yardstick for his success in the debate, but landed enough effective blows for several commentators to award him the victory. Can’t say I saw it that way myself, but these events are highly subjective.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May probably triumphed just by getting permission to be there, and the fact she spoke well, argued coherently and pushed back effectively in a testosterone-rich environment made her look like a winner to me.

And at the end of the night, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was still standing, even sneering a little, which by the weird dynamic of a televised debate seemingly designed to have as little impact as possible – the only kind the prime minister will appear in, apparently – that’s good enough for him and his supporters to call it a victory too.

This morning, all the usual suspects from all parties, plus quite a few in the Peanut Gallery, were spinning the debate as a victory for their leader, and in fact a coherent case can be made that each one won. Given the format, without a math-is-difficult moment, none of it has much meaning, though.

Let’s be realistic, the Maclean’s Magazine sponsored debate was hard to find and seemingly designed to exclude anyone except policy wonks and strategy nerds.

All Mr. Harper had to do was fend off the punches and ensure there was no definitive news clip that could be played and replayed showing him being smashed to the mat by any of his three opponents.

Give the man his due. He did that. He never melted down, although it looked like it was hard work at times, and he only sneered a little, which presumably plays well to the Conservative base.

The way I saw it, Mr. Harper’s slickly confident answers only faltered a little in the home stretch, when Mr. Mulcair finally gave up on his unnerving effort to smile all the time and hammered the PM on the issue of the liberty destroying Bill C-51 and the government’s bias against Muslim Canadians like the prosecutor the Opposition leader is at heart.

If you didn’t come with your own mental briefing book, though, it would have been easy to believe many of Mr. Harper’s answers on most of the issues covered.

Of course, most of the people watching likely did know the issues pretty well, since the whole thing seemed to be designed to discourage undecided voters from tuning in. It was low-key, dull as ditchwater, apparently aimed at the kind of people who watch Question Period on cable, difficult for many to find at more than a single click away on the Internet, buried deep on the TV dial and far too early in a campaign most ordinary Canadians will ignore until after Labour Day.

Anyway, decisively winning a political debate really requires a major blunder by one debater, and normally the willingness of another one to follow up with en effective attack. Given the skill level demonstrated by all four of last night’s debaters, if anyone had messed up, someone would have exploited the opening.

In other words, someone needed to say something stupid like, “Math is difficult,” preferably in a tone that implied, “Math is difficult, dear.”

That, for all of you who are not Albertans, was in retrospect the decisive moment in the April 23 Alberta party leaders’ debate, and quite possibly the decisive moment in the campaign that saw Rachel Notley surprise everyone, perhaps even including herself, by being elected premier on May 5. The speaker was Jim Prentice, up to then looking coolly confident and seen by pretty well everyone as Alberta premier for as long as he wanted to be.

Since there were no such dramatically decisive moments in last night’s debate, there’s nothing to play and replay on television showing the prime minister, or for that matter any of the other participants, being humiliated.

In other words, last night everybody won – except Canadians, of course, who need and deserve conventional television debate, high on the dial at an appropriate time. It should tell you a lot about how things work in this country nowadays that we’re not going to get it.

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  1. There were a few points among the contending non-Tory leaders that deserve comment. Thomas Mulcair promised to raise the minimum wage in federally regulated industries to $15 an hour. That will provide an immediate wage bonus to 135,000 of the 1.1 million workers in federally regulated industries. The response of Justin Trudeau: he won’t do that. Why? Because virtually all of the 1 million workers in Canada who make minimum wage are in provincially regulated industries and won’t be affected by the wage bonus. Come on, Justin. Why kind of Grinch are you anyway? Of course, you can’t directly affect the wages of workers whose minimum wage is controlled by another level of government. But you CAN influence those governments–minus Alberta’s, which has already agreed to work towards a minimum wage of $15 by 2018–to raise their minimums. And even if they ignore your example, why would you not want to help the 135,000 workers whose wages you can directly affect? Are they chopped liver?

    Your antipathy to corporations having to pay minimum wages is matched by your defence of low corporate taxes. You said in the debate that you do not want to be “pandering to the people who like to hate corporations.” Therefore you will not raise the corporate tax rate in Canada, which is currently 15 percent, 20 percent below the American rate. Corporate taxes in Canada were 40 percent in 1970 and 28 percent in 2000. Under Stephen Harper they have dropped from 22 percent to 15 percent. But the Canadian economy was growing faster when the corporate tax rate was 40 percent than it is now and the 28 percent rate also did us no harm. The Economic Policy Institute in the United States, in a brief in 2013, noted: “Lowering the corporate income-tax rate would not spur economic growth. The analysis finds no evidence that high corporate tax rates have a negative impact on economic growth (i.e. it finds no evidence that changes to either the statutory corporate tax rate or the effective marginal tax rate on capital income are correlated with economic growth). Sure, you’ll get more money from corporate sources by defending low corporate taxes but don’t pretend that lower corporate taxes lead to more investment. As Elizabeth May noted, the corporations are sitting on $630 billion of “dead money.” They won’t invest it now; governments can do it for them with infrastructure and social-policy programs, but they need some funds.

    Why such right-wing economic policies on the part of the Liberals and not exactly very left-wing policies from the NDP? To put it briefly, while the NDP has moved to the right of where it stood in past elections, the Liberals have moved well to the right of where they stood when they were last in office. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The Liberals lied to Canadians in 1993, promising in their “Red Book” to expand social programs and end the cuts of the Mulroney period. In practice, faced with a Parliament in which the NDP had been reduced to nine seats while the Reform party was over 50 seats, they carried out the biggest social program cuts that Canada has witnessed to date. But they reversed track after the 2004 election, needing to make common cause with the New Democrats to fend off the surging Conservative Party, which represented Reform’s gobbling up and throwing away the old PC party. Since early 2006, of course, the Tories have run Canada and their far-right economic policies have become so institutionalized that in each election the other parties move a bit more to the right to try not to appear too much out in left field. It’s a disaster for progressive Canadians if once again the Tories get into power. Next time around the Liberals and NDP will be as right-wing as British Labour was after 18 years of Margaret Thatcher in power.

    1. Mr. Finkel’s expert analysis demonstrates why any merger between the NDP and the Liberals is fraught with danger. Were such unity to occur, the monster money would be spread between the two remaining big boys and Canada would end up with true American style politics: far right Republicans and moderately far right Democrats. Conventions would look like a Brooks Brothers-Saks Fifth Avenue fashion parade with little discussion, for example, of a $15 minimum wage for anyone.

      Under the present setup, room still exists for progressive thinkers like Climenhaga and others in the New Democratic Party, Mulcair’s movement to the right notwithstanding. After a merger, progressive voices would have minuscule influence on a unified Liberal-NDP. Call them Trudeau-Conservatives-in-red perhaps?

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