For better or worse – and there have been a lot of the latter, rather than the former, during this federal election campaign – the French and English debates still represent the double feature, main event where Canadians can decide who truly deserves their vote. Granted, whole campaign narratives are structured around election platforms, where policy commitments are packaged as foundational documents from which mandate letters will be drafted. However, the truth is that campaigns themselves are the most grueling, five-week series of job interviews any political leader will ever have to endure. And the final round of those interviews culminated last night as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Leader Annamie Paul took the stage.
Ostensibly, there were five themes that were debated, which we have outlined below. However, Canadians who managed to stay engaged over those two hours would have been forgiven if they could not identify them. Voters would also be excused if they were not sure if the journalists onstage were showcased for their skills in a scrum or if the leaders were on stage to debate each other given the lack of clarity regarding who was accorded the opportunity to speak and for how long. Moments when opposing visions were actually given the time and the attention to be discussed, when viewers could get a clear sense of who, in their minds, was best suited to be our next Prime Minister, were fleeting at best.
1. Leadership + Accountability
Debate moderator Shachi Kurl enlivened a hostile tone from the onset of the debate, pointedly asking each leader to account for some of their most prevailing criticisms. Mr. Trudeau was unsettled early, immediately taking a defensive position in responding to an accusation from Ms. Paul who challenged his feminism, snapping that he wasn’t about to take lessons on caucus management from the Green Leader who has faced continued internal party discord.
In what may be the most consequential exchange of the evening, Kurl also challenged Mr. Blanchet’s support for Quebec’s Bill 21 – a secularist law she positioned as discriminatory which bars some public sector workers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. Ms. Paul seized the opportunity to criticize Mr. Blanchet for past comments on systemic racism and, in a second breakthrough moment, invited him to be educated on racism and discrimination in Canada. Positioning the issue as an attack on Quebec, Mr. Blanchet may be successful in rousing the ire of previously supportive voters and breathing some life back into his campaign.
Across the segment, leaders took every opportunity to remind Mr. Trudeau – and voters – that his government has been in power for six years, implying there has been plenty of time to have made progress on issues that matter to Canadians. Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Singh in particular teamed up to argue that Mr. Trudeau’s reputation in that time has been to announce things but not deliver on them.
For the climate change section of the debate, the end goal of each leader’s plan did not differ greatly but how any progress could be achieved exposed some stark contrasts. Mr. O’Toole took the opportunity to reintroduce – and reposition – the Conservative party’s commitment to addressing climate change, openly admitting that they had to work to regain the trust of Canadians on this issue. Notably, he was the only leader to emphasize the need to collaborate with Indigenous partners in the fight against climate change.
Mr. Trudeau focused on some of the accomplishments his government has had over the past six years but faced a barrage of criticism from all sides on his track record. Mr. Singh and Ms. Paul both faced serious questions on how they would achieve their ambitious plans, as most view them as unrealistic, and Mr. Blanchet focused on the importance of caping fossil fuel extraction. What emerged from the squabbling were two salient take-aways: the Liberals may have earned high marks from the academic and scientific community on their plan, but Mr. Trudeau took some serious hits on the government’s weak track record in making any progress on reducing emissions over the last six years; in contrast, Mr. O’Toole’s plan has brought Conservatives back into the climate conversation, but the leader also faces challenges within his own party in the recognition of the climate crisis.
The tragic revelations of unmarked graves from numerous sites across the country this year have shone a harsh light on the legacy of residential schools. They have also exposed how limited the government’s progress has been on following through on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, and how challenged the litigation process has been for survivors of these schools to arrive at any fair agreement on compensation.
Also, despite promising to eliminate all drinking water advisories on Indigenous communities within its first mandate, the Trudeau government is still dealing with over sixty communities that have yet to see any measurable progress on this front. There was plenty of ammunition the Prime Minister’s four adversaries on stage could bring to the firing line. And bring it they did, as Mr. Trudeau, pressed for airtime, itemized what benchmarks of progress and actions plans he could, while Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Singh, citing their own efforts at resetting the conversation with First Nations, were effective in laying bare some stark examples of talk without action.
The unifying message came from Ms. Paul who, looking directly into the camera, called on all leaders to unite and work together in a non-partisan cabinet to tackle and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As she astutely said, this should not be a partisan issue, and it seems as though this was among the only points of agreement amongst the leaders of the evening.
The focus during the cost-of-living segment was on the impact of every day to a key voting demographic – Canadian seniors. While questions spanned from housing to childcare, the discussion came back to seniors several times with party leaders extolling their commitment to more support for them.
It was expected that Mr. Trudeau would try to turn the childcare issue into the kind of wedge issue that gun control became in the third week of this campaign, expounding on the new agreements that have been signed with the provinces, how many new childcare spaces will be built and how much money Canadian families will save. He had limited success in doing so, as he tried to get in whatever barbs he could about the Conservatives’ tax credit offering for families. Mr. Trudeau struggled to get any leverage at all on another key affordability plank, pharmacare, as Mr. Singh was effective in criticizing how marginal a mention this commitment had in the Liberal platform.
If there was any moment that might resonate in the final days for voters on affordability, it could be Mr. O’Toole’s clear, declarative statement on the 400 million dollars per day Canada continues to go into deficit, and what that might mean for affordability in the long term.
5. COVID Recovery
The final section of last night’s debate covered COVID-19 recovery – supposedly the reason the election was called in the first place. Recall Mr. Trudeau outside of the Governor General’s residence telling Canadians that this election will be about what the next 17 years will look like for Canadians.
While many of the leaders’ key platform planks were touched on, again the debate format did not allow for important policy ideas related to long-term care, restarting the economy, vaccinations, and fiscal sustainability to be given due airtime in the discussion.
Mr. Blanchet raised perhaps one of the most interesting points on recovery, noting that current government commitments are focused on creating jobs, but with businesses across a number of sectors of the economy finding it challenging to fill roles, we should be focusing on “creating workers and productivity.” This was a point on which Mr. O’Toole heartily agreed.
Evan Solomon, who moderated the final section, noted the significant price tag at which current government programming targeted at COVID-19 recovery is coming in at and similarly, the price tags of the parties’ platforms. No leader was able to effectively articulate where and how they would lower spending or what measures they would put in place to assure fiscal sustainability.
Opposition leaders also took the opportunity to hammer on Mr. Trudeau for calling an election during the fourth wave, as they had earlier in the night, highlighting that if he was truly serious about COVID-19 recovery, he would have continued to govern, rather than call an election.
From now until election day (September 20, 2021), any campaign operative will tell you that the focus for every party now shifts from communications strategy to operations – in other words, the Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) master plan that is deployed by 338 campaign teams of each party, give or take a few ridings.
Earlier this week, it was reported that an unusually high number of Canadians remain undecided about their choice at the ballot box. It is rare that voter sentiment changes dramatically at this stage in a modern campaign, even with a “knockout punch” that one candidate manages to land in a debate. It is even more unlikely, given the bar fight of a debate that ended so abruptly last night.