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If you’re hoping for some TV drama, this week’s debates might deliver

Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois, Erin O'Toole from the Conservatives, Jagmeet Singh of the NDP and Justin Trudeau of the Liberals will take part in TVA's debate on Sept. 2, 2021. The Canadian Press

In 1984, it was the artfully indignant Tory leader Brian Mulroney, stabbing the air with his finger and berating then-Liberal prime minister John Turner — “You had an option, sir!” — about his decision to approve patronage appointments made by the retiring Pierre Trudeau.

In 2011, it was Jack Layton turning squarely to Michael Ignatieff and tearing into the Liberal leader for having “the worst attendance record” in the House of Commons: “You know,” said the NDP leader, “most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”

Read more: Federal leaders face off over COVID-19 and vaccinations in first election debate

The federal leaders’ debate can be seen as a made-for-TV courtroom drama, with the audience waiting and watching for that prosecutorial “gasp moment” — J’accuse! — when a dagger hits its mark and fortunes rise and fall.

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The knockout punch. The unforgettable zinger.

It doesn’t always happen, but it could in this contest.

When the leaders of the five main parties square off on Wednesday for the campaign’s second French-language debate and a night later for the only English-language tilt, each of them will have been carefully prepped by their handlers to do two things, above all else: to seize the moment when they can catch an off-balance rival with a deeply wounding accusation, and to get their guard up fast when one’s coming at them.

No one stole the spotlight in the TVA debate last Thursday in Montreal, despite several fiery exchanges — over vaccines, health care, guns and climate change — between Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

When Green Leader Annamie Paul joins the fray this week, she’ll be the third lawyer on stage along with Singh and O’Toole. Can we expect a stinging indictment of Trudeau over Canada’s still increasing greenhouse gas emissions or his government’s purchase of an oil pipeline? Will O’Toole be interrogated into silence over his party’s refusal to declare climate change “real”?

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Will Trudeau or O’Toole force some startling admission from the other over two-tier healthcare or vaccines? Could Singh stagger Blanchet on the issue of systemic racism? Will O’Toole — or any of the opposition leaders — finally force Trudeau to confess his election call was ill-timed?

Tune in this week and find out.

The other possibility is an out-of-the-blue revelation that stuns the courtroom. It was only thanks to some clever NDP strategists in 2011 that Layton was able to leave Ignatieff sputtering and guilt-faced in the prisoner’s dock, caught unaware by the Commons attendance shocker.

Read more: How to watch the federal leaders’ debate on Global News

Serious political observers always lament the focus on single moments of drama when it comes to leaders’ debates, urging voters to assess each candidate’s overall discussion of the key issues and to earnestly consider the strength of the many arguments and counterarguments about federal-provincial relations, budget deficits, foreign affairs and the like.

Image analysts, meanwhile, are more concerned about what the leaders wear, the potential impact of having a mustache or glasses, the gestures they make with their hands, and such immutable attributes as age, gender, height and vocal pitch.

But with leaders’ debates, all of us — pundits, partisans and just plain folks — really are spectators in the visitors’ gallery on the set of The Good Fight, craving a sudden plot twist, a withering attack, a damning disclosure.

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Leaders’ debates in Canada are not mass-audience spectacles like an Olympic gold-medal hockey game or the final episode of a beloved, long-running sitcom. The people who watch these political contests are typically already engaged in the election campaign, have likely made up their minds long before the event is broadcast, and are stoked about the possibility that a defining moment may occur.

That’s not to say a debate without a memorable highlight can’t be influential. Public opinion may be shifted through subsequent news coverage, experts’ conclusions about who won or lost, and the ensuing social media chatter — all of which, of course, are being influenced by partisans on all sides.

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And viewers can use debates to reinforce or unsettle certain superficial assumptions they may have about the leaders in terms of their sincerity or slipperiness, confidence or unease, mental sharpness or befuddlement.

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A voter might ask: “Is this the kind of person I’d feel comfortable having a beer or coffee with?” And the debate might yield an answer, offering at least a general impression of a leader’s likeability. But again, those impressions are surely well established for most viewers long before the cameras roll that night.

Televised debates, in short, are not a great way for us to decide how to vote or which of the performers should become prime minister. Citizens of a democratic country shouldn’t let a few hours of TV entertainment determine which party might form the best government.

It would probably be better if a non-partisan panel of experts devised an LSAT-style exam testing each applicant’s suitability for running a national government. We could lock the candidates in a room for three hours, tally the number of correct answers, and announce each party leader’s score at a post-exam press conference.

Commentary: Three leaders’ debates — two of which are in French — simply aren’t enough

But we all love a good show. And the leaders’ debate is more than a process that objectively measures the qualifications necessary to lead the country.

So we watch and crave a jolt of excitement. It’s juvenile. It’s voyeuristic. It’s fun.

And it’s the obvious takeaway from such a contest. The one sure-fire way to tell if something significant has happened, if perhaps some history is being made before our eyes, is if one of the participants turns toward another and rips them rhetorically to shreds.

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We particularly recall those confrontations when there’s some evidence that they moved the needle of public opinion and the election outcome seems to have been crucially affected.

The story of Mulroney’s sweeping majority victory in ’84 is typically linked to that “pivotal” exchange with Turner over patronage in the televised debate. Less often does the analysis extend to Mulroney’s subsequent record for rewarding Tory friends with patronage plums.

Layton’s precision strike on Ignatieff 10 years ago is routinely cited as one explanation for the startling Orange Wave that carried the NDP to its best-ever election result — 103 seats — and Official Opposition status. It’s also come to symbolize the historically steep decline in Liberal fortunes in that election and the end of Ignatieff’s political career.

The fact that Layton’s success was also a major factor in Stephen Harper winning his only Conservative majority — hardly an ideal scenario for NDP voters — complicates the narrative.

But that’s the thing about the gasp moment in a leaders’ debate. It’s all we really remember.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter.

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