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Political Image and the Canadian English-Language Debate

Although we are now fully into the third week of the federal election campaign, a majority of Canadians will not have begun to take full notice until last night’s English-language leaders’ debate. Sparring on a set that looked like a throwback to a 1970s game show, the leaders of Canada’s three federalist parties, plus separatist leader Gilles Duceppe, exchanged barbs on a range of issues: crime control, multiculturalism, the economy and tax cuts, health care and governance.

Following the debate, each party’s war room went into full spin mode in an effort to declare their leader the winner and to set the post-debate news agenda; news networks provided nonstop analysis and reporting; and the social mediascape was abuzz, with voters, pundits and journalists offering up their favourite quotes, commentary and predictions about the next day’s headlines.

Despite the range of issues which animated the event, voters who tuned in looking for a thoughtful debate about policy will have come away disappointed. Although each party’s general position on the aforementioned issues were on display, these were mostly reduced to well-rehearsed sound-bytes designed to influence the post-debate news cycle. What’s more, several major issues were virtually ignored: climate change, telecommunications reform and Canada’s digital strategy, the aging workforce, and crumbling public infrastructure, to name just a few.

In fairness to the leaders, however, televised debates are really less about policy than performance: it’s no wonder, then, that in the aftermath of the event the news media discussion has focused more on assessing the leaders’ image than the substance of their argument or vision for Canada. Cynics and critics lament the attention paid by parties, the media, pollsters, the punditocracy, and even voters to image politics: a politician’s charm, clothing, communication skills and charisma, high-minded observers argue, should not count for more than the solutions he or she has for dealing with the wicked policy problems of our time.

In my co-edited book, Communication in Question, public relations consultant Bernie Gauthier argues that normative criticisms like this betray an understanding of image and the role it plays in political campaigns. Bernie draws theoretically from the work of the political scientist Samuel Popkin, whose book, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, examines the cognitive shortcuts citizens take in order to arrive at reasoned choices. Popkin argues that rather than trying to learn something specific about a candidate or party’s policy position, voters exercise “low information rationality” in order to make assessments about competence on the basis of characteristics we might otherwise dismiss as mere packaging: how they handle pressure, respond to attack and appeal to sentiment.

With the advent of television, political speech has shifted from the use of formal techniques to a more conversational mode of address that’s designed for the intimacy of the living room. With this in mind, the prime minister’s stylistic performance was strong and from my perspective he appeared to be the best coached leader for the event. Knowing he’d face three skilled debaters looking to knock him off balance, Angry Steve didn’t come out to play — instead, we saw a PM who remained calm and composed, who never got rattled, never broke a sweat and whose tone of voice remained even throughout the debate. Harper knew precisely where his camera was located and effectively spoke to it, and thus directly to Canadians watching at home. Nothing the prime minister said will have swayed left leaning voters to give him their support. But he also did not commit the mistakes of classic debate losers that would see major bleeding to other parties. Notwithstanding Harper’s record in government and his campaign gaffes and problems, in the debate he was neither contentious or histrionic.

Most of the media attention in the build-up to the debate (and since) focused on how the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, would fare in his first televised leadership contest. Overall, he did reasonably well. Although he stumbled on a few occasions, he clearly found his stride when addressing governance and international issues. In response to Mr. Harper’s appeal for a majority mandate, Ignatieff responded: “you don’t deserve the trust of the Canadian people because you don’t trust the Canadian people.” When Mr. Harper accused the opposition of forming a coalition to advance its motion of finding the government in contempt of Parliament, Mr. Ignatieff replied: “You keep talking about Parliament as if it’s this little debating society that’s a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It’s not. It’s the Parliament of the people of Canada, and they found you in contempt.” Mr. Ignatieff portrayed himself to the be the most cerebral and theoretical of the leaders. This image will appeal to voters who believe that parliamentary traditions demand respect, who believe in the importance of a strong international reputation, and who think that intellectualism is a strength and not a liability of political leadership.

Mr. Ignatieff also expressed himself more clearly than the other leaders in his body language. In Gauthier’s essay, he reflects on the pioneering work of Ray Birdwhistell, whose classic book Kinesics and Context reminds us that it is more than just words that express meaning and influence. Our body movements (hand gestures, facial expressions) are also powerful communicators. On several occasions during the debate Mr. Ignatieff pointed his finger at Mr. Harper and could be seen staring deeply in his direction, hand fixed firmly on his hip (a gesture Aaron Wherry suggests that would have driven image consultants to “scream in unison at their television screens”). Mr. Ignatieff’s gestures will have produced competing images that will resonate with different voters: those who like him and mistrust the PM will see an assertive and strong leader and a genuine alternative. Those who already dislike him or have been convinced by the Conservative attack ads that Mr. Ignatieff is arrogant and aloof may conclude that the tone of his body movements convey aggression and impatience.

In many ways the NDP leader, Jack Layton, had the most difficult role of the evening. Faced with having to battle an established narrative that there are really only two options in the election (a red door or blue door), the NDP’s biggest challenge was to make itself appear relevant. And for this reason, it was necessary that Mr. Layton perform in such a way that would help him cut above the noise of the Conservative front-runner and his Liberal challenger. Mr. Layton’s physical position in the debate between his main federalist challengers was a benefit and reminds us of the famous aphorism that “space communicates”. It allowed him to alternate his body position in order to address each of his federalist opponents in turn on a similar point. To Mr. Ignatieff he asked, “Why have you been Mr. Harper’s best friend?” before turning toward Mr. Harper to state, “if it hadn’t been for him supporting you all this time, I’d have to be lending you my crutch so your government could’ve stayed in power.”

Mr. Layton also produced some of the evening’s most memorable lines, the most effective of which was was surely the one directed at Mr. Ignatieff’s voting record. In challenging Ignatieff’s claim that only a Liberal government can be an alternative to the Conservatives, he quipped: “Most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion. … You missed 70 per cent of the votes [in the House of Commons].” That this zinger wasn’t factually correct (Mr. Ignatieff really missed between 55-60 per cent of parliamentary votes) was really beside the point. Mr. Layton can only be seen to have succeeded in his goal of portraying his party’s relevance in the campaign. Pundits or observers who write off the NDP as irrelevant in this campaign should give their heads a shake. Whether Layton’s success in the debate translates into voter support or seats, however, is a different matter.

The big question people are asking today is “who won”? In many ways this is the wrong question to ask because it presumes the leaders were competing for the same audience. With his polling numbers sliding dramatically in the day preceding the debate, Mr. Harper had to appeal to nervous voters on the right and centre-right of the political spectrum to reassure them of his trustworthiness. While I don’t think his performance will have netted the Conservatives new votes, he did a reasonably good job of maintaining the support he already has.

Mr. Ignatieff had to court the same centre-right voters (who are also in play for the Liberals), as well as those who swing between the Grits and NDP, by reminding both of the Conservative contempt for Parliament and the allegations of scandal and corruption. On this score he did well. But he also had to show himself to be a credible alternative to Mr. Harper. And in this regard he deserves good marks. The Conservatives attempt to paint a picture of the Liberal leader as out of touch and aloof will have failed to register last night. Ironically, the strategy of vilifying the Liberal leader may benefit Mr. Ignatieff more than Mr. Harper in the end.

Mr. Layton, finally, had to appeal to his base of left wing support and to centre-left voters who have never quite warmed to Mr. Ignatieff. Ultimately, Layton’s main objective was to be a factor in the post-debate news cycle. Based on several memorable one-liners and of the media images showing him between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, he succeeded.

At the end of the day, we’re left with a situation where not much will have changed. Nobody wins and nobody loses. In some respects, with the exception of a single outlier, the post-debate polls shows a general tightening trend with some very interesting regional dynamics, including Quebec where the NDP appears to have some decent upward movement. Thus while tonight’s French-language debate won’t garner the same audience share as last night’s event, it is still very much a key chapter in the story of this election. And it’s a story that’s far from over.

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