Column for June 4, 2006

Proud Rodney, Frank Francis and Diligent Darrell

If no clear winner emerged from the primordial swamp of Thursday night’s party leaders’ debate, the luminescent loser, at least from my somewhat jaundiced point of view, was our vacuous wind-up doll of a premier.

Rodney I-am-proud MacDonald seemed so mired in I-am-very-proud message-track mode that he couldn’t be prouder to be so proud of being proud of… What was the question again?

Because he was extremely proud of that question too.

And positive? Did he mention how positively positive he was feeling about being proud of being positive because of his party’s proudly positive four-year program for the future.

See, I’m smiling too. I can smile and be proud at the same time. And positive.

If the other parties wanted to talk about the past, well, Rodney wasn’t even going to say Ernie Fage’s name. Who? La-de-da-de-da, I can’t he-e-e-ea-a-a-r you…

No, Proud Rodney was going to stay positive. Not that Ernie Fage wasn’t a positively fine fellow, of course. He could even be back in a Proud Rodney cabinet after the election, Rodney sort-of-said later. But Ernie’s name wasn’t programmed into Rodney’s memory bank of proud, positive phrases, so, during the debate itself, he could only answer a question about why Ernie really quit his job as development minister after cabinet approved some questionable loans to government buddies by saying he was… proud as punch about his government’s positive record of economic development. Proud and positive. Proudly positive. Positively proud.

Is this debate over yet? Can I stop smiling now?

Liberal leader Francis MacKenzie, despite sometimes coming across as a sweaty-palmed used car salesman desperately eager to close a bad deal before its time, was at least in command of his material. He could not only articulate what was actually in his party’s platform but he was also able to distinguish it from his too often too similar rivals. MacKenzie knew why he was against eliminating the HST on home heating oil, and why he thought that tax breaks to keep graduates in the province made more sense than lowering tuition, and why the debt mattered. You didn’t even have to agree with his arguments to acknowledge he made them well.

Coming into the debate, Frank Francis had been written off by much of the media and many in his own party as a gaffe-prone blowhard who would be long gone before the next provincial election. Measured against those subterranean expectations — which is to say to damn him with faint praise — MacKenzie did well enough. He did not lose himself any votes he didn’t have, and he may have even picked up a few floaters.

Diligent Darrell Dexter was expected to perform better than the others — he, after all, was the only leader who’d taken part in the last such debate — and he did, up to a not very sharp point.

Like MacDonald, he suffered from the transparently manipulative mania for staying on message — a better deal for today’s families, five goals for Nova Scotia families, a plan you can count on and blah blah blah — regardless of the question he was actually asked. In the process, however, he managed to do a better job than either of the others of articulating a coherent vision for his party.

But he wasn’t very good in the clinches. He seemed to get caught out, for example, when Rodney MacDonald countered his criticism of the Tories’ health care failures with the you-knew-it-was-coming-Darrell-so-why-didn’t-you-have-a-better-answer fact that Dexter’s party had voted for the government’s health care budgets for the last two years running. And he didn’t effectively respond to MacKenzie’s dismissal of the NDP’s plan to increase the number of nursing home beds either.

His own questioning wasn’t much sharper. Although he can’t be blamed for the fact that Francis MacKenzie twice bulled into the china shop of a Dexter question about why Ernie Fage really quit his cabinet position — effectively letting MacDonald off the hook — the question itself seemed more like an opposition leader’s Question-Period question than a premier-in-waiting’s attempt to force the premier-in-power to explain why the government had set up such a friends-and-family slush fund in the first place.

And so it went.

Doesn’t it make you proud all over?

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