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There were no winners among the federal leaders on Wednesday and Thursday. And the only real losers was anyone who gave up four hours of their life to watch both.

It was a farcical two nights where a confused debate format made what should fundamentally be a simple concept — have the leaders answer questions about their plan — and turned it into a confused circus where topics whizzed by and nothing of substance was allowed to happen for more than 20 seconds before the moderator moved things along.

Wednesday’s French-language debate was probably the worst of the two, but at least it started and ended an hour earlier. The world gets by on small mercies, and being able to call it a day at 10 counts for something.

What marked out the French debate was less what was said, than how weightless the whole thing felt. There was a moderator, Patrice Roy, who would ask leaders questions, then some leaders would debate each other, then other leaders would debate amongst themselves, and then everyone would all debate each other, then someone else would appear to ask individual questions before quickly moving on, and there was of course regular people asking questions on live TV.

The only thing to really break up the swirl of questions and talking points were the frequent interruptions of Roy to explain what exactly was supposed to happen in the next round, like we were all sitting to play a complicated board game for the first time and needed a guide through the rules.

When there was a chance for something of real substance to take place, the moderator or one of the other journalists who were not-moderating (like I said, it was confusing) quickly intervened to make sure the substance was cut off. The section of the debate on Indigenous issues was dominated by a story of some Asterix and Tintin books being burned in Ontario because of their depictions of Indigenous people. Dumb and overzealous, surely, but 1,000 miles from anything truly important.

When the debate did veer back toward more serious and substantive issues, Roy, to what should be his great shame, made sure to get things back on the subject of the comic books.

In another of the few moments we might have learned something came when an 11-year-old asked the leaders what they would do to reduce fossil fuel use, to fight climate change, and the subaltern moderator watered down the question enough that the leaders just talked about how they had children and climate change was important.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau probably came out of the French debate the best, having mostly been able to keep his hair being mussed by his opponents, and landing a surprisingly fiery — and no doubt at least a little bit rehearsed — broadside at Bloc Leader Yves Francois Blanchet, saying he too was a Quebecer and the Bloc doesn’t have a monopoly on Quebec issues.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole probably did fatal damage to his Quebec campaign by releasing a costed platform that would ditch Trudeau’s daycare plan and claw back a $6-billion dollar deal with Quebec to fund their already-in-place system.

But the second night provided a slightly flipped outcome. O’Toole came away seeming more reasonable, and likely introduced himself to a number of people who had barely heard of him. He made no fatal errors, and never really had to answer for his crap-ass climate plan or his decision on daycare.

Trudeau, this night took more heat from his rivals, and always seemed a step or two behind — relying too often on canned lines. The only real positive moment was when he chided Green Leader Annamie Paul that he wouldn’t take caucus management advice from her. The rest of the night he was flat.

Thursday, too, there was little of substance. And whenever some substance might have happened, moderator Shachi Kurl made sure to interrupt any meaningful exchange and hand the response to someone who wasn’t a part of a particular tete-a-tete.

It seems that Kurl will now be the focal point of the campaign after she called Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans religious head coverings from being worn by civil servants, “discriminatory.” Which is correct, it is. But Blanchet and the Quebec media broadly do not take well to this sort of truth-telling about their province and its gross conception of secularism.

This may turn the province back into the loving embrace of the Bloc. Or it may fizzle out. It will definitely spice things up for at least a few days in the closing stages of the election in that province though.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did better Thursday than he did Wednesday, it might have been the best performance of the night. But his stalled campaign needed some real pop from him. While he came close a few times, he was once again foiled by the format, which never allowed any attention to linger on any one candidate or issue for too long.

It was impossible to come away with any real idea about where anyone stood on much of anything. Whatever positions they were able to put out, were quickly swamped when we moved on to the next thing, then the next thing, then the next. A series of three-sentence talking points, one after another. It was exhausting, right up until the moment it was crushingly dull.

But like the rest of this election the debate was missing any real sense the pandemic ever happened, never mind is still happening.

The closest we came was maybe when a senior who was working a part-time job in Burlington, Ont. asked the leaders what they would do to make sure that she wouldn’t have to work a job she didn’t want to just to survive. The leaders all made nods to the difficulty of the pandemic, and how it was particularly hard on the elderly. But there was no acknowledgement from any of them about how profoundly traumatic the last 18 months have been.

Which is how both debates, beyond their stupid format, were a waste of time. Why this whole election exercise is turning out to be a waste of time. Nobody is willing to grapple with what we’ve been through, and what it might mean to the country going forward.

There was talk of the effect on business, and inflation, and housing prices all with a slight nod toward the pandemic. But nothing about more than 26,000 people dying of the same disease that’s still ravaging the country.

So instead we get a quick breeze though various topics, never getting anywhere beneath the surface.

It was a farce, but how could it be anything else? It was a part of Canadian democracy, all we can manage is farce. There are 10 days to go in the election. If only it could be fewer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Ah, the Leaders’ Debates Commission. Fancy meeting you here!

I’ve never appeared before the government agency that was established in 2018 to oversee English and French language debates with eligible federal party leaders. I never dealt with the TV network consortium that previously arranged them, either.

Nevertheless, I’m intimately familiar with each organization’s questionable decisions that have kept several party leaders away from the podium.

When I was an Ottawa Citizen columnist, I wrote in favour of then-Green Party leader Elizabeth May being included in the 2011 leaders’ election debates. I didn’t support May and the Greens, and never have. Regardless, I felt she deserved to participate in the debate with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Tories), Michael Ignatieff (Liberals), Jack Layton (NDP) and Gilles Duceppe (BQ). She was ultimately excluded.

I also wrote in favour of People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier being included in the 2019 leaders’ election debates in a Toronto Star op-ed. I didn’t support Bernier and the PPC, and never have. Regardless, I felt he deserved to participate in the debate with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Liberals), Andrew Scheer (Tories), Jagmeet Singh (NDP), Yves-François Blanchet (BQ) – and, as fate would have it, May (Greens). He was originally excluded, but the decision was overturned.

The Commission is back at it this year. The main target is Bernier, but they threw in Jay Hill and the Maverick Party to create additional flavour for its political Mulligatawny Soup. Alas, it tastes more like smoke and mirrors.

PPC and Maverick didn’t fulfill the three criteria the Commission laid out for the 2021 leaders’ election debates:

* The party has at least one MP in the House of Commons who was elected as a member of that party.

* The party’s candidates in the 2019 federal election received at least four per cent of the total number of valid votes cast.

* The party has a national support level of at least four per cent, five days after the date the election is called. That is measured by leading national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly reported results.

The first and third criteria in 2021 are the same as 2019. The second criterion is new, and replaces the previous threshold, “Nominate candidates to run in at least 90% of all ridings.”

Maverick is a new party based on western provincial rights and independence. It was formed in January 2020 as Wexit Canada, and switched to its current name in September. It’s never run federal candidates, and has no electoral history. The Commission’s decision about Hill and Maverick seems logical. They don’t meet the parameters right now, but this could change after next month’s election.

What the Commission did with the PPC (again) is completely wrong.

The criteria for leaders’ election debates has always seemed arbitrary, restrictive — and, at times, undemocratic. Some people cheered this decision because of the controversial ideas that Bernier has espoused since launching the PPC in 2018. Regardless, liking or disliking a political party and/or leader isn’t a justifiable reason for inclusion or exclusion.

Let’s examine the Commission’s thresholds.

Criteria #1: Bernier doesn’t hold a seat in Parliament. He lost the Beauce riding in Quebec that he and his father, Gilles, held for the better part of three decades in 2019. However, May participated in the 2008 and 2011 leaders’ election debates before becoming the party’s first elected MP in the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands in the latter. Ergo, one hand washes the other.

Criteria #2: The PPC ran a full slate of candidates in 2019, and would have fulfilled the old criterion in 2021. Conversely, the PPC only earned 1.62% of the popular vote in 2019 – which the Commission obviously knew, and set a high bar the small party couldn’t cross. A little fishy and unfair? Sure seems like it.

Criteria #3: Five days before the election was called, the PPC’s polling was at 4.6 percent (EKOS, Aug. 10) and one listed it as not available (Angus Reid, Aug. 10). If we include additional days, the party was sitting at 4 percent (Abacus, Aug. 11), 3 percent (Leger, Aug. 12), 1.9 percent (Nanos, Aug. 13) and two N/A (Innovative, Mainstreet). On Aug. 15, the day the writ was dropped, the party was at 5.6 percent (Mainstreet), 2 percent (Leger), 5.1 percent (EKOS) and 5 percent (Forum). If you add everything together, it’s an average of 3.9 percent – which is close enough. Remove one outlier, and the 4 percent threshold has been fulfilled.

End result? Even with these arbitrary thresholds, the PPC basically met the Commission’s criteria. Unless you really want to split hairs, of course. Hence, Bernier should be allowed to participate in the leaders’ election debates.

As I’ve said and written before, the English and French debates should be about enhancing voter choice, knowledge and understanding. When party leaders like May and Bernier are prevented from participating for flimsy reasoning, it hurts our democracy and electoral process far more than it helps. It also affords small political parties like the Greens and PPC the ability to claim that “elitism” is always their greatest political adversary.

None of this will cause the Liberals, Tories, NDP or BQ to have any sleepless nights. Nevertheless, they must surely realize the Commission’s current criteria is preposterous, the party thresholds are evergreen and things need to be reformed. Otherwise, why bother holding these debates in the first place? (Which, I readily concur, is a separate matter that may be worth having.)

Until we meet again, Leaders’ Debates Commission… and we undoubtedly will.

Michael Taube, a columnist/political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.