Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

Last week we said that the frame of the debate in the upcoming election was taking shape and that it was about trust – and its opposite:  risk.

On Wednesday, guests at a business-lobby-sponsored leaders’ “debate” got a glimpse of what we meant when Premier Dexter and the two opposition leaders gathered at the Neptune Theatre. There wasn’t really much drama expected in the ring since the leaders were expected to recite answers to five pre-submitted questions from the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Mere shadow boxing.

Unable to attend in person, we were glad to receive some first person accounts from faithful readers in ring-side seats.

It was a bit of an awkward affair, in part due to the hapless moderator, who couldn’t keep track of the speaker order, and called both Mr. Baillie and Mr. McNeil by the first name of “Peter” at various points. Here are our summary points for those interested in the sweet science of political debates:

  • Premier Dexter went first. He looked comfortable – almost too comfortable –  with notepad in hand, but got off to a bit of a slow start. He hit his marks by the 3rd question on taxes and the economy.  He landed a jab on Stephen McNeil’s anti-jobs positions, especially Liberal opposition to the IBM contract. And he finished strong.
  • Jamie Baillie looked slightly nervous at first, but soon calmed. He showed excellent discipline of message and made some fine attempts at folksy charm, including a couple of one-liners that really resonated.  He was good. Speaking to a business friendly crowd, Baillie trotted out familiar Tory ideological tropes such as anti-union legislation and “belt-tightening.” No surprise punches there. Baillie had one of the few spontaneous mid-speech rounds of applause when he also hit Stephen McNeil hard for not supporting the IBM deal.
  • Stephen McNeil looked uncomfortable – a tall man in a short chair. Numerous people wrote in mentioning the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln, also a very tall man, sitting in his chair. But that’s where the comparison with Lincoln ends.

Stephen McNeil is not an orator. He has started to speak very slow. Most of what McNeil offered were platitudes and lofty rhetoric, like “we need to start thinking about one Nova Scotia.”

The one part of McNeil’s performance that was coherent was his strong desire to be Premier. He wants to be Premier. He’s been waiting to be Premier, so he’s prepared to be Premier.

Sources say that the three leaders had the questions for a week or more. Considering that McNeil has been invisible for months, he should have been ready. And he simply wasn’t.

Voters have no idea what a Stephen McNeil led government would do. On anything. And that’s a risk.