Fallacy Friday: Substance and logic the big losers in last night’s debate

I watched the whole damn thing.

Really I did. Without the aid of intoxicants, I sat through a painful hour and a half of shouting, statistics, and (old) stock lines from the leaders of the Big Three Parties.

I even took notes!

Looking back over them now, I can see with more perspective how utterly incoherent the evening was, how jumpy. How each subject was dealt with perfunctorily, with the utmost brevity. How the super-liminal branding by the Globe and Mail was a hideous distraction, as was the ominously dark and distorted and angled and looming false-colour photo of the Parliament Buildings that they inexplicably selected as a backdrop. How much goddamn squabbling and shouting and incoherent crosstalk there was.

Some sample quotes from my hasty scribbles:

  • “TOTAL INCOHERENCE ON TAX RATES. They’re all wrong.
  • “Mulcair: ‘Harper dodged the question!’ Then he dodges his question.”
  • Fear-mongering! Lies!”
  • “Harper: Canada: it’s not great, but it’s as good as it gets!”
  • Child care is Mulcair’s answer to the housing bubble?!?!”
  • “Trudeau keeps saying ‘top 1%’ – I guess the focus groups liked that line?”

Upon further reflection, I think taking notes was a waste of time.

As a former debater, a concerned citizen, and a political commentator, I’ve gotta say it: that debate was a total disaster. Shame, shame, shame on the Globe and Mail for putting on such an atrocity. Poorly (and unevenly) moderated, with an inexplicable mix of softball questions and unnecessarily specific inquiries, featuring gaping lacunas in the subject matter – it was truly a waste of the audience’s time, and probably the leaders’ time as well.

But dammit, I suppose the leaders all said things, and that those things merit comments, so here are some thoughts:

I think Trudeau handily “won” the debate, for whatever that’s worth. By “won”, I mean he was the most successful at defining his own case, and at defining the case of his opponent, Thomas Mulcair. (Harper was an afterthought for Trudeau; though the Liberal leader spent some time attacking the PM, he was primarily competing with Mulcair for the so-called “change vote”, hence all the SQUABBLE SQUABBLE.)

I have to admit that I underestimated the focus groups which run Justin Trudeau’s brain. At the outset of the election, I pretty much wrote off the Liberal Party, but they’ve successfully fought their way back into a statistical tie for first place in the polls with the other Major Parties. This reversal in fortunes was largely brought about by a total reversal in policy, a reversal which Mulcair repeatedly pointed out last night in a way that somehow just didn’t seem to stick. The Liberals, mid-campaign, suddenly decided that deficits are the answer – most people don’t really give a damn, regardless of what they tell the pollsters, and it allows them to promise the moon and the stars and sell themselves as the party with a Vision for the Future.

And that was the narrative that Trudeau aggressively pushed last night. More taxes on the “top 1%”, less taxes for everybody else. More infrastructure for everybody, less uptight Harperism. And forget about the NDP – they’re just not credible. And for whatever reason, it was an effective sales pitch.

Which is, in its own way, truly incredible coming from a man who’s taken both sides of every major issue at some point in the past five years. But most people don’t pay very much attention to federal politics at all. Debates like these are a rare occasion for the leaders to impose their spin on an uncertain public – and spin they did.

To award Trudeau the victory crown is pretty meaningless, because his victory relied entirely on style. The substance of each leader’s case was vague at best and grossly misleading at worst. Each leader was at their best in both pointing out the inconsistencies in their opponents’ platforms and in ignoring and denying the absurdities in their own.

A case in point is taxes. The three men SQUABBLE SQUABBLE’d extensively on the subject throughout the debate, and as best as I was able to piece it together, here’s what they had to say:

  • Harper denounced Mulcair and Trudeau for both promising to raise taxes.
  • Trudeau fiercely defended his “modest” tax hike on the “top 1%” but insisted he’d lower taxes on the sainted “middle class”.
  • (Everybody genuflected at the mention of the middle class.)
  • Mulcair then turned on Trudeau for his tax hikes on individuals, and promised to only raise corporate taxes, and only for big corporations!
  • Plus he’d cut taxes for small businesses, which Trudeau admitted he totally hates!
  • But won’t those corporate tax hikes kill all the jobs, asked Harper?
  • Mulcair shot back that his tax rates would be lower than the average corporate tax rate while Harper’s been PM!

Which sent things to a pretty meta level, if I do say so. Because when you look at that fact, and then take a step back and look at all of them, you realize that the three parties have practically identical tax policies. There’s like one difference between each of their plans, and they were raging at each other over them, making them out to be these massive philosophical divides. But the simple fact of the matter is that, assuming each party keeps its promises, the tax code is going to be almost exactly the same for almost everybody, and almost the same as it’s been for years.

Ditto for deficit policies. Harper has for weeks been saying that both the Liberals and NDP are parties of “permanent deficits”, a line he used again last night. Which is odd coming from a man who’s run six (or seven) consecutive deficits himself. But it gets weirder, because Trudeau has for years been attacking Harper’s deficits – and until a few weeks ago, he insisted he’d balance the budget. Now he’s promising three years of deficits – but good deficits! Meanwhile, I still remember Mulcair going on TV after this year’s budget was released and saying that now was not the time to try to balance the budget – but his reaction to this week’s announcement that the budget had been balanced was delight.

Which is to say, they’re making it up as they go along. There are no guiding principles nor grand governing philosophies. Just expedience, convenience, whatever they think will sell this week. In an alternate universe, if some extremely minor thing had changed in the past several months (say Trudeau deciding to wear a blue instead of a blue-and-red tie one July morning), it’s easy to imagine the NDP defending a plan of short-term deficits and tax hikes on the top 1%, while the Liberals insist that they’ll balance the budget and raise the corporate tax rate.

And in most ways that matter, the parties are more alike than different. Though they’ll all fiercely deny it, this root-level similarity was starkly highlighted by the release this week of the Leap Manifesto, a completely common-sense and urgently needed blueprint to building a more just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable Canada that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a globally warmed world of being adopted by any of the Big Three.

So for instance, in the discussion of the energy sector, there was no mention of the Manifesto’s demand for local democratic control of sustainable energy resources. In discussing the jobs crisis, no mention was made of a universal minimum income. In responding to questions of how they would pay for their promises, no party leader offered up ending fossil fuel subsidies, or downsizing the military.

There were absolutely no big ideas in last night’s debate. Trudeau won, in my opinion, because he at least gestured in the direction of big ideas. His plan to fund upgrades to Canada’s infrastructure isn’t misplaced or completely wrong-headed. It’s just utterly lacking in the scale and scope of ambition that so many people want to see in a leading politician.

I’ve heard approximately nine hundred and thirty-seven times this past month that 70% of Canadians want change in this election, and eventually the droning repetition of this statistic will drive me over the edge. I truly hope that my fellow Canucks are better than that, that folks aren’t willing to settle for any old simulacrum of change, that the kind of tired absurd evidence-free “debate” that we saw last night will inspire people mostly to reject the false change on offer from the Big Three Parties.

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