After any major federal leaders’ debate, the standard question is “Who won?” The query is unavoidable.
Yet from NATIONAL’s perspective, in light of last night’s event, it is perhaps best to ask who lost. And to that question, the answer is seemingly clear: undecided voters.
Perhaps the debate provided viewers with at least a glimpse of the contrast between the 5 main party leaders. Such differences are often hard to decipher during the course of a full campaign, which is why debates can be powerful vehicles to convey key positions on the challenges facing the country.
It will take a few days for any new shifts in public opinion to become clear. Yet by any objective measure, it was two hours of a relatively tortuous, at times painful-to-listen-to debate. The debate highlighted long-time political irritants (interruptions, shouts, evasiveness), viewers barely had an opportunity to assess what leaders stood for. The atmosphere was a perfect reflection of the last few months on Parliament Hill: antagonistic.
The “morning after” criticism today around the moderator is also fair. Her tone was highly accusatory out of the gate. Referees should not be the focal point of hockey games—and the same logic goes for debate moderators. Not to mention the choppy inclusion of other journalists throughout the night, which did nothing to trigger what was intended: debate among the leaders on major policy issues and their respective ideas.
At a time where political apathy is at an-all time high (and with segments of the electorate becoming more radicalized), this feels like a definite missed opportunity to educate and mobilize voters.
So how did each leader fare yesterday?
- Justin Trudeau was understandably the main target throughout the evening, often facing heat from the four other leaders on his record. He was squarely on his political back foot. Overall, he was largely able to stand his ground, but it can be argued that Justin Trudeau seemed rattled most of the night. He was rarely able to pivot on issues he wanted to highlight, nor was he able to get in “clean” soundbites on his perceived achievements. He was instead forced to look left and right for incoming political missiles, some of which landed effectively. The real metric: whether this will make a dent either way in opinion polls through the weekend.
- Erin O’Toole was able to best articulate his views and even showcased a more genuine side through the admission that his party, the CPC, failed to meet the standards of Canadians on issues such as climate change and reconciliation. He followed that with a convincing articulation of his party’s plan to address affordability and housing issues. He had, by all accounts, a good showing, but continues to be pressed on his intent to balance the budget while increasing spending and his position of the firearm ban.
- Jagmeet Singh was a beneficiary of yesterday’s platform. The switch from French to English worked to his strengths, which showed especially during exchanges on reconciliation and climate change. He exhibited a passion and a charisma that were definitely missing from his performances in French debates. However, questions linger around how he plans to fulfil his lofty spending pledges. And whether he was able to hold his national support remains an open question, especially given how the Liberals will seek to pull progressive voters into the fold in the remaining 10 days of Election 2021.
- Annamie Paul offered a fresh perspective in what was her introduction to many voters. She was able to frame all of her interventions, regardless of topics, through a diversity-and-inclusion lens. She commanded the section on climate change, finally showcasing her party’s track record and expertise on this file and was perhaps Justin Trudeau’s harshest critic on gender equality and reconciliation. She undoubtedly seized the platform she was provided with. But she was short on details and is hobbled by any tangible policy offering other than her climate change platform.
- Yves-François Blanchet had the least to gain: his party, admittedly, doesn’t want to govern Canada, a nation it sees as foreign. However, his fierce defence of Quebec’s views on state secularism and promotion of the French language—highlighted through a rather controversial question raised by the debate moderator—could provide a boost in Quebec and his overall campaign.
Best quotes of the debate
“I won’t take caucus management lessons from you.” (Justin Trudeau, alluding to Annamie Paul’s feud with her own party, after she had accused him of having muted the voices of powerful women in his caucus)
“You can’t take a knee one day and take Indigenous kids to court the next” (Jagmeet Singh, questioning Justin Trudeau’s commitment to reconciliation)
“You can say that these laws are discriminatory. We say that they are legitimate.” (Yves-François Blanchet, responding to the moderator’s question about the legitimacy of Quebec’s bill 21 and bill 96)
“You triggered an election in the midst of wildfires in B.C. and a growing crisis in Afghanistan.” (Erin O’Toole to Justin Trudeau)
Impact on the rest of the campaign
It would be frankly surprising if this debate moved the needle in any direction. In what is akin to an interminable job interview, Canadians have yet to decide who is worthy of their trust. Polls continue to show an extremely tight race between the LPC and the CPC, with the NDP and the Bloc positions respectively make gains and hold on to their seats. Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole now have 10 days to do something—anything—that will finally resonate with Canadians and propel them to power.
Are we headed towards another minority parliament? Perhaps. But even this outcome is too early to call. What is absolutely certain is that the final stretch of this campaign will be pivotal. And all leaders will be looking to either “fix” any damage inflicted last night or leverage any momentum into the final days.
We will continue to monitor what could be Canada’s new landscape.
Consult our 2021 Federal Election section to get the latest perspectives from our experts.
——— Tiéoulé Traoré is a former Director, Government Relations at NATIONAL Public Relations