Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Style vs. substance

The first obvious takeaway from tonight's Saskatchewan leaders' debate was the need for both more debate and more debaters. And for all the criticism of the exclusion of other parties' leaders, the bigger issue may have been a painfully shortened format that allowed for only minimal discussion of any topic (especially when substantial portions of most of the 2-minute open sessions were taken up with transitions between the two leaders' statements).

That said, it was nonetheless possible to learn something from the debate. And while it isn't entirely off base to suggest that the debate fit into the broad contours of the rest of the campaign so far, I'm not sure that's a bad thing for the NDP's chances.

Simply put, tonight's debate was a pure test of style versus substance. Yes, Brad Wall was more polished than Dwain Lingenfelter, and hewed far more strictly to pre-fabricated talking points - which in far too much coverage seems to be treated as the lone goal of any political party or leader. But there's only so much an advantage on that point could do for Wall given the already-unbalanced views of the two leaders.

Meanwhile, the debate also featured some sharp substantive clashes which worked to the benefit of Lingenfelter and the NDP. Between Wall's describing new home construction as his party's plan to help the homeless and citing exactly the types of problems with housing and child care that are best addressed in the NDP's platform as the types of costs that are putting a post-secondary education out of reach, the Sask Party's leader gave voters ample reason to take a closer look at why they might need a government who's willing to do more to share the benefits of Saskatchewan's resource wealth. And voters looking for that should be pleased with what they saw out of Lingenfelter, whose strongest responses were on exactly the questions of basic fairness that serve as the core of the NDP's campaign.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the debate will be seen that way by the time voters reach the polls - particularly if most of the province's media decides to write another chapter in its hagiography of Wall in the weeks to come. But I wouldn't be surprised if voters who may not yet have been paying attention saw enough positive ideas out of Lingenfelter tonight to make the race closer than most seem to expect. And the more people start to question the differences between what they saw in the debate and the deified Wall and relentlessly-attacked Lingenfelter they've been shown in the past, the better the chances of a surprise in the NDP's favour as the campaign progresses.


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