This is an important week in the federal election campaign, for it is the best chance for party leaders to connect with the people on national television: the French and English TV leaders’ debates.

Elections have been won and lost in these debates throughout Canadian history (check out these links on the CBC’s web site to watch and listen to some old election-related stories). In 1984, Brian Mulroney went on the offensive against then-Liberal leader John Turner – Mulroney’s vicious, cutting attacks against Liberal largesse helped him win the largest majority in Canadian history. In 1993, Jean Chretien took leadership neophyte Kim Campbell down several notches with his arguments against Tory fiscal mismanagement. In 2000, Stockwell Day used a prop (a no-no in televised debates) which Joe Clark quickly snapped out of his hands and humiliated Day in a way that indirectly helped the Liberals win another majority government. So as you can see, debates are essential to helping form public opinion.

There’s a lot riding on this year’s debate, more so than ever before. For one, all party leaders can speak fluently in both official languages (a nice change from the unilingualism of “certain” party leaders of the past). More so, this will be the first federal leaders’ debate since 1993 that has a unified conservative party. There are four parties participating (although the Greens, now a force in Canadian politics, were inexplicably excluded from the debate, although that won’t be happening next time around) and all four leaders have a lot to gain out of the debate.

Paul Martin, with his Liberal party struggling badly this campaign and dropping fast in the polls, needs to hit a home run in both French and English to turn the tide. Stephen Harper, on the other hand, only needs to push his party’s momentum further. He will be attacked by both Martin and NDP leader Jack Layton equally; Harper’s lead in the polls means that Layton must attack the Conservatives and Liberals equally in order to prevent progressives migrating to the Liberals. Some may view a vote for the NDP as a vote for the Conservatives, given that the Liberals are the only real way to stop a Conservative election win.

But the real pressure is on Martin, a man who’s watching a Greek tragedy unfold before his eyes. He’s got only two chances to stop public perception that the Liberals are tired, bloated and need to be kicked out of government.

For the French debate, it will be essential to voice how the Liberals will make real changes for Quebec, and how the province benefits more from a voice in Confederation, rather than by supporting the sky-high Bloc Quebecois (they just polled at their highest in party history, which is a bad, bad sign for the Liberals).

The English debate will be about Martin deflecting the AdScam controversy, true, but more importantly, will also be about Martin demonstrating that he is change without risk – his primary selling point to Canadians in the first place. He will be ruthless about describing the Conservatives as “barbarians at the gate” who will transform Canada into a satellite state of the U.S., destroying uniquely “Canadian” values.

In any case, get ready for some spectacular politics – one of the most important debates in Canadian history is about to be underway.


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