by Steve Paikin Saturday December 1, 2012

One of the fascinating things about leaders’ debates: who shines, and who doesn’t. I’m always surprised at who meets expectations, and who doesn’t. And Saturday’s first leaders’ debate in Ingersoll in southwestern Ontario was no exception.

In my experience, party members judge candidates at these debates on two metrics: performance and policy. On my scorecard, Glen Murray wins. More than any other candidate, he had a mastery and command of policy ideas at his fingertips. He spoke without notes, including his opening and closing statements, which also featured some French.

"I am ready to be premier the day after the convention," the former mayor of Winnipeg said. “No one has led a government, a ministry, a non-profit organization, or gotten more votes in more places than me.”

Ironically, Murray also said the following, in connection to his approach to rural Ontario, which was the overarching theme of this debate:  "We don’t need to plan for [rural Ontario], we need to listen to them."

Murray, without question, is the worst listener of this bunch. He has no caucus support at all because, among other things, his fellow MPPs see him as a pontificator, not a listener.

But having said that, he was utterly impressive in the way he mixed solid performance and policy.  

Gerard Kennedy, as befits a guy who hasn't been at Queen's Park in six years, put it out there, that Liberals have lost touch with rural Ontario, and that’s why they lost all their rural seats in the last election. No one else put this truth so bluntly.

Sandra Pupatello got close to delivering the same message. "Something happened to us when we went from majority to minority government," she said. "We need to re-engage with party members and listen to rural Ontario. We’re all over you when we’re running for office or leader. But otherwise we stop listening."

Pupatello is also putting herself out there as the "I am who I am candidate, a reference to her "Ready, Fire, Aim" style, honed in eight years on the opposition side of the House. But the strength of her performance bordered on angry, as she tried to demonstrate her toughness.

When talking about auto plants that set up shop in this region, Pupatello had the temerity to say, "I did that," when she was economic development minister. It came across as boastful, not to mention inaccurate, given the myriad of people (politicians, bureaucrats, and company executives themselves) who would have been in on the decision to locate there.

Kathleen Wynne evidently heard the same thing. She closed the debate with the following:

"It’s not about one minister, it’s about leading a team." Wynne is putting herself forward as the best candidate to "bring people together." 

But Pupatello’s admonition to her fellow Liberals was equally clear:

"The next election won’t be like this debate," she said, "everybody nice and agreeing. Put me up against Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak. Do that for each of us. Please, let’s have a leader with opposition experience who knows how they think. I could hit the ground running knowing what normal folk out there are talking about. Look at me in that way. I can fight the NDP. I can fight the Conservatives. That’s what we need right now."

Otherwise, this was a gentle debate. The call by Wynne for civility was heard. The debate moderators also issued a warning at the beginning that the audience wasn’t to boo or heckle, and the audience listened too much. They applauded none of the answers either. Besides, none of these folks wants to risk ticking off another candidate, whose second, third, and maybe fourth ballot support might be crucial to victory.

Other notes:

  • Kathleen Wynne said if she won, she’d serve as her own minister of agriculture and rural affairs for a year, to highlight how urgently she takes those issues.
  • Harinder Takhar would forgive the student loans of any medical students who serve in rural areas.
  • Eric Hoskins, a medical doctor for 25 years, said he’d vote in favour of the government’s latest contract agreement with the Ontario Medical Association later on Saturday. He also suggested his mix of experience (three years in government and a couple of decades as a doctor running an NGO) made him qualified to be premier. His performance skills, however, are still shaky.
  • Kennedy suggested to Liberals that Premier Dalton McGuinty stepped down "because you wanted to see a changed agenda. Not fundamentally different, but something people can relate to in a fresh way." McGuinty beat Kennedy on the fifth ballot at the 1996 leadership convention.
  • Charles Sousa committed to holding an event in rural Ontario once every quarter, if he were premier. He's also presenting himself as the fiscally prudent candidate, given his past employment in the banking sector. 

All in all, a good first debate in which all the candidates demonstrated some facility with the issues. But Murray was the best.