We knew them not so much by the ideas they conveyed or the words they uttered, but by the roles they assiduously embraced.
There was Prime Minister Stephen Harper assuring his audience, like a narrator in a Thorton Wilder play, that his avuncular governments have, over the past 10 years, had only the interests of the common, ordinary folk in mind.
There was fighting-fit Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau throwing left jabs and right crosses (sometimes even landing a few) in a mighty attempt to show fans of political pugilism that he was, indeed, a heavyweight ready for the main event.
There was a professorial-looking Thomas Mulcair, studiously reminding Canadians that good governance is serious business and only the highest-minded among us are properly equipped to meet the challenges of providing universal day care and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
In fact, the only leader in the first debate of the federal election who didn’t appear to assume a role for the benefit of the voting public was Green Party chief Elizabeth May. Bully for her and for a brand of plain-speaking one can almost endorse.
“We have a weak and shrinking economy and it’s the wrong time for austerity measures,” she said at one point. Turning to the prime minister, she added acidly, “We’re in a recession under your watch for the second time.”
As for the condition of Canadian democracy, she declared, “Instead of fixating on this splitting-the-vote non-problem, vote splitting, we need to focus on the real problem, which is that 40 per cent of Canadians in the last number of elections haven’t voted, and vote abandoning in my view is a much bigger problem than vote splitting.”
Under the circumstances, it’s a shame that Ms. May’s appearance last week is likely to be her single debate opportunity in this election cycle. On the other hand, one wonders what these dog and pony shows actually accomplish, either for the candidates or for the electors.
Are they any more articulate about their plans and priorities for having spent a chunk of time in front of a camera taking pot shots at one another’s records, statements, misstatements?
Are we any better informed about the issues that concern us most?
When, in the debate, Mr. Harper said, “the other parties are proposing literally tens of billions of dollars of additional spending, permanent spending, to be financed by permanently higher tax rates and permanent deficits,” are we sure he was telling us the whole, unvarnished truth?
Likewise, when Mr. Trudeau complained that Mr. Mulcair’s “minimum-wage plan actually will only help less than one per cent of every Canadian who earns minimum wage,” and that this, in effect, amounts to “false advertising”, do we believe him?
In the end, though, as political debates go, this wasn’t an especially dreadful affair. If we didn’t learn much more than we already know, we did recognize the players for their various scripts generally courteous comportment.
As it happened, on the very night last week that Canada’s leaders’ debates proceeded, the Republicans in the United States hosted their own verbal cage match.
According to a BBC report, “(Donald) Trump. . .most uncomfortable moment came when moderator Megyn Kelly challenged him on his views about women. ‘You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,’ she said. He answered by joking that he only said that about actress Rosie O’Donnell and stating that political correctness was one of the country’s biggest problems.”
We should, perhaps, be grateful for the political actors we have here in the Great White North