Campaign launches. Photo opportunities. News conferences. Door-to-door canvassing. Rallies. Cheer squads. Fundraisers. Text messages. Lawn signs and catchy campaign jingles.

Those are the things that elections campaigns are made of.

Voters are on information overload but hearing directly from party leaders without the spin of journalists, pundits and Monday morning quarterbacks remains a crucial part of how voters make their decision.

Debates are that vehicle, and the 2019 federal election’s first debate took place last night.

There are countless hours of preparation that are put in by each campaign team so that each party leader is prepared with the facts, the zingers and the strategies it takes to win.

A primer on the 2019 Federal Leaders Debates

For 2019, there is a Leaders’ Debates Commission, established by the federal government that has planned to hold two leaders’ debates, one in English and one in French, in October. It is worth noting the commission contracted a group of organizations to plan and run the debates. The Leaders’ Debates Commission, which was established after the last election and is led by former governor general David Johnston.

It should be noted that Mr. Trudeau is limiting himself to two nationally broadcast debates organized by the commission, plus a third debate hosted by TVA, a French-language network. Last week the Liberal campaign announced that Mr. Trudeau will skip the leaders’ debate on foreign policy hosted by the Munk Debates and a debate co-hosted by Maclean’s magazine and Citytv, both in Toronto and the first of which happened last night. The other leaders are in for these two, as was Mr. Trudeau in 2015.

Campaigns will spend hours contemplating the strategies of whether it is in their interest to be part of debates and how many. There is no right answer, but the optics of empty podiums or potential gaffes can be damaging to any leader’s brand.

The First Federal Leader’s debate

The 2019 federal election’s first leaders’ debate marked the first opportunity for the leaders of the Conservative, New Democratic and Green parties to make their case, set the tone and frame the campaign narrative in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s notable absence.

The three leaders discussed the economy, indigenous issues, energy, the environment, and foreign policy, and at times it got heated. Unsurprisingly, each Leader took the opportunity to take shots at Justin Trudeau.

The debate had few notable surprises.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer attacked Mr. Trudeau for running deficits, despite noting a promise made in 2015 saying he would return the federal budget to balance this year. Scheer warned voters that the Liberal government will raise taxes to pay off the accumulating debt and jeopardize the state of Canada’s ability to fund the services they rely on. He promised that a Conservative government would “live within its means” and balance the budget in five years.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May stuck to a narrative that no party in this election besides the Green Party has accepted the emission-reduction targets required to address climate change, while speaking also to expanding social services and upholding a responsibility to first nations reconciliation.

At points throughout the debate, leaders turned on each other with the sharpest exchanges raised between the NDP and Green leaders who are locked in a fight for third place.

No party presented any novel positions on any new issues. The first debate will widely be seen as a practice run on a smaller stage with a smaller audience for both Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh, neither of whom have been tested in federal leader debates.

The one notable surprise was NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s debate performance. While the party has had difficulty finding candidates to run in nearly half of the country’s 338 ridings and have constantly polled at historically under Singh’s leadership – his passion and articulation of the NDP’s frame was effective.

Mr. Singh’s best moments came when he was able to clearly display this passion. His anger and exasperation at issues he viewed as inequitable set the stage for an understanding of the NDP’s value proposition in this campaign. Singh hammered home that he speaks for struggling Canadians by reiterating the NDP’s promise to bring universal pharmacare to Canada by 2020. Singh made sure to position both the conservatives and the absentee Liberals as establishment parties who cater to the wealthy and are driven by corporate interests – a contrast that might suggest what an NDP opposition might push the government to address.

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