Sunday, December 09, 2012

#skndpldr - Swift Current Debate Notes

As Scott has already noted, Saskatchewan NDP's Swift Current leadership debate included plenty of familar themes:

And indeed, one of the more interesting issues facing both the candidates and the debate organizers is how to account for the difference between an audience which may be seeing the candidates for the first time, and the relationship between the contestants themselves based on regular responses to the same questions. My preference would be to ensure that the candidates face a wider range of questions during the course of the campaign, meaning that the pattern of maybe 2 new questions at each debate falls short of what would be ideal - but there are certainly sound arguments to be made in both directions.

That said, even with the questions largely echoing the previous debates there were once again a few relatively new developments worth pointing out - which I'll cover in a quick candidate-by-candidate review.

Cam Broten's performance wasn't quite as effective in the Swift Current debate as in some of the previous ones - which may be explained in part by his having to carry out double duty between the Legislative Assembly and the debate. But the most noteworthy part of his answers on a couple of questions (those related to revenue and free trade agreements) was a tendency to emphasize an undefined concept of "balance" first, then only afterward point out some of the problems with the Sask Party's current direction.

Of course, few candidates will want to argue for imbalance in those policy areas (nor indeed in any other). But it may be telling that Broten's instinct is to triangulate rather than emphasizing contrasts on issues where there's a strong case to be made that we're a long way from balance by any reasonable measure.

The most noteworthy development in Ryan Meili's performance was his most direct audition yet for the role of leading off question period against Brad Wall. Meili identified an issue of substantial ambiguity in Cam Broten's Saskatoon answer on uranium refining, and pressed Broten to explain why he would treat refining differently from reactor construction (which all candidates have ruled out altogether). 

But Meili's style still looks to have some way to go: he's speaking more clearly and effectively in his opening and closing statements, but reverting to a softer, faster pace when answering questions (and still regularly running out of time in his responses). And future debates should tell us whether he'll be able to develop the same habits in speaking off the cuff that he's working on in his prepared speeches.

Erin Weir received the most significant gift of the debate in the form of a question from Trent Wotherspoon. So far, I've found Weir's strategy somewhat surprising: he hasn't entirely pivoted away from lumping all three of his opponents together in order to criticize a lack of focus on short-term costing and legislative priorities, leaving me to question how he'd expect to make up ground in later ballots.

But Wotherspoon positively invited Weir to speak in terms of broader principles rather than short-term proposals - which looks to me to be exactly what his campaign has all too often glossed over. And while Weir's follow-up response drifted back into policy detail, he'll be well served to focus on being able to demonstrate to other candidates' supporters that he can be as effective as anybody in motivating citizens to deal with the underlying principles that have mostly been endorsed by all sides.

Finally, Wotherspoon's own performance was somewhat improved from earlier debates. He was once again tripped up by relatively simple questions of policy detail - one from Weir asking him to choose how to pay for feed-in tariffs, and one from Meili on rural land ownership. But in each case the issue was more tied to a failure to choose among options than difficulty recognizing the choice presented to him. And in general the repetition of questions looks to have assisted Wotherspoon in developing more detailed answers as the debates have progressed. 

In closing, I do disagree with Scott's view that the candidates "have all hit their strides", as each looks to me to have room to grow as the campaign continues. But all have certainly built from the first debate to the fourth - and there's ample reason for optimism that the result will be a strong set of choices for NDP members.

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