The thing about election debates is that they’re not so much actual debates, in the sense of a presentation of the logical positions on an issue, as they are shouting matches made up of alternating (or overlapping) monologue. These dust-ups give us little information about issues but do give us a sense of the character of the candidates. Or so I’ve heard. My observations on three debates from the last week follow:

Radically condensed interpretive summary of the Sun TV debate Oct. 20
Moderator 1: What about that Gardiner Expressway?

David Miller: Well, it’d be nice to get rid of it, but it’s way too expensive. So we’ll keep it.

Jane Pitfield: We should keep it.

Stephen LeDrew: It’s time someone had the guts to say it: we’ll keep it.

Pitfield: Miller has a secret agenda. He’s going to tear down the Gardiner.

All three candidates: [Savage screaming, biting and kicking.]

LeDrew: Miller has done NOTHING AT ALL!

Miller: I replaced some buses.

LeDrew: If you’d forget about the streetcar right-of-way, maybe you could replace some buses!

Pitfield: That streetcar ROW sucks!

Miller: Then why did you vote for it?

Pitfield: It seemed like a better idea before. It sucks!

Moderator 1: Isn’t that a flip-flop?

Pitfield: I never flip-flop.

Moderator 2: Pitfield, you want to build subways. How you gonna pay for that?

Pitfield: Some senior government pixie dust, a dash of private sector magic and, woah, look at that shiny object.

Miller: We can’t afford subways.

LeDrew: You’ll never build any subways.

Miller: We’re building a subway.

LeDrew: Miller has done NOTHING AT ALL!!!

Miller: I housed the homeless.

LeDrew: Nyah nyah nyah. NOTHING!

All three candidates: [Gouging and rabbit punching. Hair pulling.]

Roll credits.

Citytv Toronto Star debate, Oct. 23
This one was slightly less of a cage match than the Sun TV debate, but it still managed to be unhelpful to anyone but political junkies.

Actual, non-interpretive transcript of the most memorable moment:

Miller: Councillor Pitfield, it’s very interesting. It’s almost like everything I say, you oppose. If I were to say today it was Sunday, you would say it was Monday. And you’d phone up a week later and say it was Tuesday.

[Audience laughter.]

Pitfield: Well, maybe it is.

[Audience falls dead silent for two or three seconds.]

Miller: Wow. [Pauses. Audience starts to laugh again.] I hope not. I’d be very surprised.

LeDrew: I’m not going to get into that last part, what day it is. I know what day it is.

[Audience laughter.]

Pitfield: So do I.

LeDrew was swinging wildly all night — “You could have had a turnip in office and got the same results” — but the mayor, keeping both arms up and jabbing selectively, managed to keep out of the way of the roundhouses. I did think LeDrew landed a glancing blow with this one: “If David Miller had been mayor in 1954, we wouldn’t have any subway line at all.”

For his part, Miller looked like he was the only one who knew what he was talking about and stuck it to Jane Pitfield in a way that risked making him look like a bully. His setting the record straight on the fact that the city is conducting an Environmental Assessment that includes incineration was a welcome correction to the record, but his “Just say yes, Jane” insistence that Pitfield acknowledge he was telling the truth came across as patronizing.

Hart House, Oct. 23
Homeless fringe candidate Kevin Clarke nearly stole the show for the first scheduled hour of proceedings (see for a full account of his antics).

When the event finally got underway, Miller had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he lectured about how tuition has gone up by a factor of 10 since he was in law school and outlined his youth jobs programs.

Pitfield appeared matronly, saying her four kids keep her in touch with youth issues and advising the crowd blandly that the city really benefits from having so many educational institutions.

The real story was LeDrew, who proved once again that he’s been given too much credit as a candidate. Asked about affordable housing, he talked about TTC fares and his own experience of living with his brother when he was in college. When members of the group Stolen From Africa heckled him, he shouted out, “Are you on the payroll too?” — an apparent reference to (apparently groundless) allegations last week that two black youth had been paid to attend a mayoral press conference. Even among schoolchildren, LeDrew appeared out of his depth.

Verdict after three debates

Television debates are terrible places to discuss issues. Don’t pick Pitfield as your improv partner, or ask her to organize your calendar. Miller still isn’t setting hearts-a-thumping, but may be the only presentable candidate, still. LeWho?

Originally published in Eye Weekly October 26, 2006.