The great debate debacle

The first and last English debate with all the federal party leaders was a bit of a shit-show, but it also revealed some notable strengths and weaknesses.

Last night, all six party leaders participated in the televised federal election debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, the final English debate before the Oct. 21 vote. While many may have wished to get a better sense of the candidates, the format of the debate and the sheer number of participants made it difficult for any of them to answer any question in detail. 

The debate lasted over two hours and consisted of a seemingly interminable series of 45-second speeches on questions posed by audience members. As is the case with all televised debates, the candidates spent so much of the time speaking over one another that it was hard for any subject to be discussed at length or for any candidate to be held to account for their platform or past record. However, the effect this time was amplified substantially by the number of voices on the stage. While the debate gave a platform for Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh to eloquently remind the public of their parties’ relevance in an otherwise two-horse race, the clear political winner of the contest was Justin Trudeau.

Andrew Scheer found himself between a rock and a hard place, having to defend his party against Conservative defector Maxime Bernier as well as the other candidates. His strategy seems to have been to present his party as an ultimately centrist option “defending Canadian freedoms” and “welcoming immigrants” while providing tax cuts for all and keeping the price of gas low, of course. While more moderate Conservatives who are on the fence between the two mainstream parties might be swayed by this softer image of Scheer, who “is personally pro-life but won’t reopen the debate,” the disproportionate participation accorded to the PPC’s Maxime Bernier in this debate meant that Sheer was unable to either present his platform coherently, or attack the other parties with any consistency. 

Scheer tried in the opening segment to lambast Trudeau on the recent blackface scandal, saying that the prime minster, “couldn’t even remember how many times he put on blackface because he’s always wearing a mask”. He tried to confront Trudeau on the SNC scandal; the back-and-forth cacophony of the six voices onstage put the Liberal leader in a very comfortable position, where he was able to quote platform highlights and the achievements of the past four years with the Obama-esque optimism we’ve become accustomed to unobstructed. Indeed, Sheer’s greatest success of the debate was directed at Bernier: “I don’t know which Maxime I’m speaking to. The separatist of the 1990s, the conservative minister of the 2000s, or the Maxime Bernier of today.”

Of course, Elisabeth May and Jagmeet Singh played their roles admirably, calling Trudeau to account on his environmental record. May repeatedly recalled parliamentary studies stating that Trudeau’s objectives were no better than Harper’s, and that they would need to be doubled to resolve the impending climate change crisis. While Green supporters will be happy with her performance, it will likely have seemed a bit too academic for most of the population. Many Canadians will be satisfied with Trudeau’s “ambitious and doable plan”, and most will be as unsympathetic to May’s open call to Trudeau, “I hope you don’t get another majority” as they will to her calls for an electoral reform based on Australia’s constitution.

Singh accused Trudeau of pandering to corporations, but this fell flat given that both right-wing parties also accused the Liberals of doling out “corporate welfare.” Trudeau offered no defence to these arguments, because he didn’t have to. He had not one, but two Conservative straw men to direct his responses at. Ultimately, while many left-wing viewers will have enjoyed Singh’s heartfelt, sincere and down-to-earth portrayals of people struggling to make ends meet after decades of cuts to social programs, his position will likely come across as youthful naiveté for most Canadians. We’re a long way from the Jack Layton glory days of the NDP, and the party today is more reminiscent of their former role as bleeding-heart liberals in a distant third-place spot.

It would normally be the purview of the mainstream parties to ask the NDP and Greens the ugly question of how they would fund their programs, but Maxime Bernier did it for them. Indeed, the PPC candidate went so far as to accuse Scheer of not being “a true conservative” and threw around the word “socialist” like it was 1985. The Bloc candidate used rhetoric from the same era, asking Trudeau if he thought “Quebecers could do anything Canadians could.” The Prime Minister responded with a rapid-fire quip recalling Trudeau père: “Quebecers can do anything Canadians can, because Quebecers are Canadians and they will remain Canadians under my watch.”

So what does that leave us with? As Elizabeth May aptly said towards the end of the debate, “With all due respect Mr. Scheer, you’re not going to be Prime Minister.” None of the candidates were able to get enough facetime with Trudeau to force him to defend himself. This in turn allowed Trudeau to really shine on a handful of issues that many voters will care about. He was the only leader who said that his party would actively work against the conservative elements in the country at the provincial level, stating overtly his willingness to fight Ontario’s Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney on climate change. He also stated that the federal government “might need to intervene” on François Legault’s Bill 21, while Jagmeet Singh responded quite poorly to a question directed at him by moderator Althia Raj on the same subject.

Long-time Green supporters will recall how long it took that party to be invited to these forums. They would be rightly surprised how quickly Maxime Bernier, the leader of a fledgling libertarian party, got a spot, considering that he only has his seat because he was elected as a Conservative, and that his party is currently polling at under 3 per cent of popular support. Justin Trudeau said nothing in this debate that will convince supporters of the NDP and Greens that his platform is better, but he didn’t have to. The format of the debate and, above all, the fact there were simply too many people talking, benefit the governing Liberals more than any other party. If you’re a Trudeau supporter, tant mieux. If not, you’d better hope for a major change of winds in two short weeks. ■

See our 2019 federal election guide here.