Ten takeaways from what will be the only English-language debate among the leaders of our political parties for the Oct. 21 election:
- First off, it is an insult to voters that there is only one English-language debate that leaders could agree to conduct. Naturally, an incumbent prime minister has the most to lose, so he — like incumbents before him and around him and likely ahead of him — minimize the exposure. Justin Trudeau is a boxer, so he would know that what he was able to get as a format Monday was a match in full headgear facing spongy opponent gloves in short flurries to barely break a sweat.
- It is difficult to know how to make these debates worse, but Canada finds a way every four years. Two-hour debates were the norm when there were three leaders, but they are insufficient to the task when there are a record six leaders onstage. Only two parties have ever formed government. They are in a dead heat in the polls. How is it that there were a mere handful of minutes of the two principal leaders engaging each other? The competing hockey and football games on TV were at least focused and decisive.
- Trudeau was going to be the target. He surprisingly looked like he was surprised. When Andrew Scheer called him a phoney and a man of masks in the first moment — he had memorized a nifty passage, obviously — Trudeau had no particular rejoinder to fight fire with fire. All night he had trouble being the prime minister. He has a hesitant speaking style when he’s thinking aloud, and that never helps when opponents take a nanosecond to interrupt. He looked a bit diminished, mostly like a candidate for the office, not the occupant of it.
- If debate results are determined by expectations, then Jagmeet Singh was the leader who emerged with the greatest gains. A little like Trudeau in 2015, deemed not ready, Singh seemed temperamentally suited to chill the froth of his counterparts all night. If his main object in the weeks ahead is to provide dissatisfied 2015 Liberal voters a place to park, then Monday was a strong step. Next to Singh himself, Scheer is the next happiest to see this, because NDP pickups from the Liberals will help elect some Conservatives.
- Scheer, interestingly, was rarely the target. It was as if the other leaders were thinking what Green leader Elizabeth May was saying — that he will never be elected prime minister. He was in better command of his files and calmer in the fray than his principal foe, and his last two weeks of campaigning had better be fiery, but the rhetoric of the Liberal ads didn’t creep into Trudeau’s performance terribly much to wound him.
- May gets an opportunity every election to demonstrate a capacity to confront climate change with a sensible economic argument beyond the bromides of it being a great industrial opportunity that will not hobble the country. She again was unable to overcome the expense of her plan and thus doesn’t stand to benefit from the night beyond preaching to the converted.
- There seemed to be three tiers: Trudeau and Scheer, Singh and May, and the Peoples Party’s Maxime Bernier and the Bloc Quebecois’ Yves-Francois Blanchet. Bernier seemed trapped all night as intolerant and incoherent, and Conservatives must be pleased there was a 13th ballot that instead elected Scheer two years ago. Blanchet was entertaining, not particularly menacing as some of his separatist predecessors, and it was instructive (if worrisome for the prime minister) that he agreed with Trudeau on the need to defend Quebec jobs over the need to respect an attorney general’s independence on the issue of SNC-Lavalin.
- Broadcasting is not easy. It is only made to look easy. We should never have to comment on hosts with debates, but handing segments to two inexperienced broadcasters among the five (!) hosts was something to reconsider. And if we wanted an authentic discussion on Indigenous issues, why weren’t Angela Sterritt or Duncan McCue onstage?
- Hallelujah, no opening or closing statements.
- Debates usually leave someone with something to make headway in the final days of the campaign. The morning after, I have no recollection of a moment that provides anyone with a momentous statement. They’re on their own.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.