We’re still not getting simple answers to simple questions during this election campaign

Journalists are making an effort, but the leaders are sticking with pre-packaged responses
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 08, 2021
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, and moderator Pierre Bruneau at the first French leaders’ debate on September 2. (Martin Chevalier/CP)

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Are you getting as frustrated as I am by the unwillingness of the leaders to answer straightforward questions with straightforward answers? 

The amount of question-dodging has reached new levels during this 44th general-election campaign. How many times have you seen the following: a journalist asks a clear question, the leader gives a gobbledygook-filled answer, and then the journalist says, “Well, that didn’t answer the question at all, but here’s my follow-up.” 

COVID-19 isn’t the only epidemic in this election campaign. Non-answers are, too. 

So much has changed over the past decade about how the leaders attempt to persuade voters. Once upon a time, the leaders actually wanted to appear on programs such as The Agenda or CBC's The National in order to be seen in serious settings by as many viewers as possible. If you performed well under those circumstances, it mattered. It helped. No more. 

With COVID-19 has come a new way of doing business with journalists. Up-close scrums are out. Very proper news conferences are in. One question and one follow-up are allowed, and since the leaders assume very few people are watching these exchanges in real time, they simply produce canned, pre-packaged responses that often don’t even engage with the question asked. But if the media are going to pluck only 10 seconds out of the answer for the evening news, they can get away with it. 

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They all do it. For example, Justin Trudeau was asked numerous times why a Liberal party leader who says he’s serious about sexual-harassment allegations would allow his oft-accused candidate in Kitchener Centre to stand for re-election. And numerous times, he gave an answer that was a clear attempt to rag the puck while being unresponsive. It seemed clear that, if any other party had attempted to do what the Liberals were doing, you’d never hear the end of the Liberals’ outrage. 

It also seemed pretty clear why Trudeau was fudging. The Liberals held Kitchener Centre last time, and, because the scandal broke past the deadline for replacing their candidate, they feared losing a seat they desperately need if they’re to form a majority government. Only when it became apparent that the media intended to ask the question every day did the Liberals eventually jettison former MP Raj Saini. Another party will thus pick up that seat.  

Erin O’Toole has had his moments, too. The Conservative leader has been asked numerous times whether he’d rip up the child-care agreements the current government has signed with the provinces; every time, O’Toole has tried to be as murky as possible with his replies. You hear a lot of, “We’ll work with the provinces on priorities,” but what you never actually hear is an answer to the question. Globe and Mail reporter Marieke Walsh, to her credit, tried interrupting O’Toole’s filibuster, but because his mic was hot and hers was turned off, O’Toole just powered through and gave the same non-answer. 

Jagmeet Singh was particularly amusing Tuesday when he was asked about climate change. Singh has spent much of the campaign impressing people with his casual, off-the-cuff style, eschewing the teleprompter for what looks like real talk. But when he blasted the Liberals for setting what he sees as a weak carbon-tax level, reporters asked him several times what he’d prefer to see instead. He never answered. Then, hilariously, he set up his final answer to the question by saying, “Let me be absolutely clear about this …”  Then he filibustered; he wasn’t even remotely clear, let alone absolutely clear. He never did tell us what his carbon tax would be set at. 

On one level, I can understand the leaders’ reticence to answer questions directly. They’re trying to control the narrative, and they’ve all no doubt been told to be as unspecific as possible, lest a headline or Twitter storm ensue. 

“Singh would set carbon tax at twice the Liberal level” is a headline NDP organizers do not want to see. “O’Toole would rip up child-care agreements and give all the money directly to parents” would cause headaches in the Conservative party’s advisory circle. “Feminist Liberal leader defends candidate accused of sexual harassment” would give the Liberals fits. 

But I’m regrettably coming to the conclusion that one reason Donald Trump was as popular as he was, was that he was so obviously not a product of spin doctors, and that made a positive impression on people. Half of America actually didn’t care that what he said was either false or ridiculous — they just liked the fact that he came across as authentic. 

Can’t we have an election campaign in which the candidates are authentic and responsive? Can no one just answer a simple question with a simple answer? If a leader miraculously did try doing that, would the legacy and social media eat them alive, or would the electorate give them props for trying? Since no one seems prepared to try being responsive, I guess we’ll never know. 

And they wonder why half the people don’t bother voting anymore.

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