FirbyAgainst all odds, this overly long summer federal election campaign is turning out to be a worthwhile exercise.

The election-day outcome 10 long weeks from now is far from certain. Authentic issues are front and centre. And voters have the choice of three distinct parties which all have a prospect of forming a government.

It is also coming after one party, the Conservatives, has been in power for nearly a decade. This adds another question – is it time to toss out an aging regime, or should Canadians stick with the devil they know?

All of these factors have contributed to an unusual level of intensity from the three leading parties, the NDP, Conservatives and Liberals, as well as from the Green Party, which dreams of holding the balance of power in a minority government. Although it’s early going in this marathon election campaign, it feels like we’re in the last five minutes of Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals.

That intensity was reflected in the highly animated leaders’ debate on Thursday hosted by Maclean’s magazine. The event, moderated by journalist Paul Wells, was broadcast on CTV and live-streamed on the web. Amazingly, the debate generated an estimated 200,000 tweets during its course, and many more afterward.

It was less surprising that the three opposition parties focused their fire on Harper, attacking the government for its record on the economy and environment. Harper showed his battleground experience, keeping his cool under attacks that were so withering that, at one point, Mulcair essentially accused the prime minister of having a foreign policy driven by xenophobia.

For her part, May inspired her base by articulating the party’s vision with vigor and confidence. Mulcair found himself on the receiving end of attacks, as well, reflecting the recognition – particularly from the Liberals – that the orange party is the one the Liberals need to defeat. Except for a somewhat wild-eyed stare, Mulcair also kept his cool, dispelling his image as Angry Tom. If the goal was to look like he could be PM, he pulled it off.

Perhaps the surprise of the evening, however, was Justin Trudeau, who ditched the smarmy grin he’s shown in recent interviews and delivered his lines with force and conviction. Although not everyone loved his closing comments, his purposeful delivery of a message aimed at real people shows how absolutely powerful he can be when delivering from a well-rehearsed script.

Following #macdebate hashtag on Twitter, it was clear that one’s partisanship determined who people judged to be the “winner.” Independent pundits, as much as they could be objective, declared no one won and no one lost.

At the risk of sounding pat, the winners were the viewers who sat through the two-hour match. The freewheeling format of the debate provided a clear enough view of each of the four leaders to develop a reliable sense of what they stand for, and how they would go about governing.

And that is just after the first of several planned debates.

It is an interesting coincidence that while the battle raged in Toronto, satirist Jon Stewart hosted his last Daily Show episode in the U.S. after a 16-year run. Stewart made a career of harpooning stupidity and mendacity in American politics, and many feel he changed both the television medium and, in some respects, the game of politics itself.

What would Stewart have thought of the four would-be leaders of Canada’s next Parliament? No doubt, he would have guffawed at some of the more outrageous claims (methodically deconstructed by the CBC in its after-debate reality check). But somehow, I feel he might have compared it favourably with Thursday’s Republican debate, which featured the outrageously theatrical clown Donald Trump among a cabal of 10 candidates.

If one were to measure the Canadian debate against that sorry show in the U.S., Canadians have reason to feel that, no matter what faults we see in Ottawa, we’re better off than the poor voters to the south.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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