English Language Debate: Setting up the Home Stretch

October 8, 2019

Last night the leaders of the six major (and not so major) Canadian federal political parties met at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, for a two-hour debate on the issues most pressing to Canadians: affordability and economic insecurity; environment and energy; Indigenous issues; national and global leadership; and polarization, human rights and immigration.

Speaking in rushed sentences – candidates rarely had more than 20 seconds at a time to speak – they nonetheless outlined their respective visions for Canada and got deep into the policies necessary to bring those visions about, patiently explaining the trade-offs inherent in the different options.

If only.

But there were some good zingers!

Mr. Singh on climate change: “You do not need to choose between Mr. Delay (Mr. Trudeau) and Mr. Deny (Mr. Scheer).”

Mr. Blanchet on the possible extradition of Ms. Meng Wanzhou: "When you're facing a powerful foe like China, you don't try to show biceps if you have only tiny biceps."

Mr. Scheer on Mr. Trudeau’s repeated mentions of Ontario Premier Doug Ford: "You seem to be oddly obsessed with provincial politics. There is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership, and if you are so focused on provincial politics go and run for the leadership of that party, Mr. Trudeau."

Mr. Trudeau to Mr. Bernier: “Your role on this stage seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately.”

Ms. May on Mr. Scheer’s commitment to cut foreign aid by 25%: “Mr. Scheer, that may be the worst idea in your whole non-platform.”

The reality is that zingers make for good TV, which is  good for the networks who hosted the debate (all five of them!) and good for the Parties which need content to blast out on social media.

Only the most explosive lines and cringe-worthy gaffes move the numbers and, while it remains to be seen in the days ahead, nothing that happened last night should have a terribly large impact. Mr. Singh and Mr. Blanchet should rise a bit, and where they pull their support from will be interesting to see, but by most accounts Canada remains on a steady course to an unsteady minority government, with the Liberals once again at the helm.

The most interesting information conveyed last night, and what we were watching for, is not who can craft and memorize the best line, or who can shout loudest over the din, but where the sustained attacks were directed, by whom and on what grounds.

What the debate revealed about the underlying strategy of each Party is worth considering as we enter the final two weeks of the campaign. Not only will it shape the outcome on October 21st, but it will help determine who can work together, and on what issues, in the likely case of a minority government.    

We start with Maxime Bernier, who sits at the far right on the Canadian political spectrum.

Maxime Bernier, People’s Party of Canada

Maxime Bernier was a late addition, but he made his presence felt early in a debate that led with a topic squarely in his wheel-house: polarization, human rights and immigration.

He spent his time pressing for reduced immigration and batting away criticism of his caustic social-media presence. Mr. Singh told him pointedly that he shouldn’t have been given a platform at the debate to push his agenda, calling Mr. Bernier’s ideas “hurtful to Canada.” Mr. Bernier was characteristically unphased, insisting that in a free society all ideas must be put on the table.

Mr. Bernier has one job – to take votes from the Conservative Party he represented for over 12 years from 2006 to 2018. Mr. Bernier insisted that he was the only conservative on the stage, directing his strongest attacks against Mr. Scheer for complacency on balancing the budget.

Mr. Bernier has struggled to get traction for his fledgling political party, launched just last year. 338canada.com gives Mr. Bernier a 65% chance of winning his riding of Beauce, in Quebec, but that’s the only seat that appears to be in play for the PPC.

But the PPC has about 2% support across Canada, almost exclusively pulling votes away from the Conservatives. In tight races between Conservative and Liberal candidates, PPC voters may abandon Mr. Bernier’s party to avoid vote-splitting. If the PPC vote holds, pollster Nik Nanos has said that it could move eight to ten would-be Conservative seats to the Liberals.

Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party of Canada

While Mr. Scheer was aware of Mr. Bernier buzzing around, he focussed his attention on Mr. Trudeau whenever possible. His strategy was to discredit Mr. Trudeau first and, if there was time left over, to then sell the Conservative vision and show himself to be Prime Ministerial. In his opening comment, Mr. Scheer went right after Mr. Trudeau, calling him a “phoney and fraud” who does “not deserve to govern this country.” No subtlety in that strategy.  

When it was Mr. Scheer’s turn to ask a question to a leader of his choosing, he again turned to Mr. Trudeau, drawing laughs from the crowd, and asked “When did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?” He also attacked Mr. Trudeau on the affordability front, claiming that the price on carbon along with other taxation measures implemented by Mr. Trudeau have made life less affordable. While Mr. Scheer’s attacks were well-formulated, they were also easily anticipated, and Mr. Trudeau was usually able to skate out of the corner without too much damage and go back on the offence himself.

Coming off of a poor week for the campaign during which Mr. Scheer spent more time explaining his past (e.g. claim to be an insurance broker, dual citizenship issue, university degree alma mater) than outlining his vision, the debate was his opportunity to get back on message. While it wasn’t a flop, nor was it a soaring performance. It is our sense that the numbers won’t move much for Mr. Scheer in the week ahead (all other things being equal), which will likely go down as a missed opportunity for a campaign that needs to find renewed momentum for the homestretch.

Yves-François Blanchet, Bloc Québécois

Mr. Blanchet’s Party has really been the only non-stagnant party throughout the election period. The Party’s initial hopes looked set at gaining Party status, moving from 10 to 14 seats. However, the Party’s aspirations have risen significantly under the still-new leadership of Mr. Blanchet, who has propelled his party from 19% to 24% in Quebec polls since the writ dropped.

Concerning seat projections, the Bloc began the campaign at 12 seats and is sitting at about 22 seats today. In the days following the French debate last week, the Bloc overtook Mr. Scheer for second place in Quebec. Could this debate propel them even further?  

Mr. Blanchet’s strategy last night was set on continuing to build on the momentum from last week by going after Conservative supporters in rural and right-leaning ridings in and around Quebec City. Mr. Blanchet made it his business to attack the CPC leader on several fronts, including Bill 21.

In a telling exchange, even after Mr. Trudeau said he would consider challenging Bill 21 in the courts —the most aggressive stance by any party leader in that regard—Mr. Blanchet chose to continue attacking Mr. Scheer on the issue, who had stated that a Conservative government would not interfere with the provincial legislation.

Mr. Blanchet did a good job in selling his bid as a strong voice for Quebec. It is increasingly likely that Mr. Blanchet will become the third party in the House of Commons and will serve as a minority government power broker. Not bad for a one-province party that was in utter shambles less than a year ago.

Justin Trudeau, Liberal Party of Canada

Justin Trudeau, as expected of a front-runner, spent much of the debate deflecting criticism of both his record and the scandals that have plagued his government (SNC-Lavalin) and his personal brand (blackface / brownface).

Mr. Trudeau is fighting a two-front battle – to the right against Mr. Scheer and to the left against Mr. Singh and Ms. May. Fortunately for him, and although Liberal popularity is sagging slightly in Quebec, Mr. Blanchet didn’t press a third front, opting to focus his attack on Mr. Scheer rather than Mr. Trudeau. This speaks to Mr. Trudeau’s credibility in Quebec, where he grew up and holds his seat and where the SNC-Lavalin scandal is seen by many as the right decision, executed poorly.

While Mr. Trudeau seemed somewhat nervous and pleading at times, walking away from the debate relatively unscathed will be seen by his campaign as a success.

Mr. Trudeau’s job over the next two weeks is to protect against votes lost to other parties while motivating his base to get to the polls. A focus will be placed on retaining toss up seats in Quebec and Ontario. He remains the front-runner and barring a major gaffe or (another) embarrassing revelation about his past he should be returned as the Prime Minister of Canada. This may mute his attacks on the NDP, Greens and Bloc as the campaign winds down – there’s a better than even chance he will need their support in his minority government coalition.

Jagmeet Singh, New Democrat Party

Mr. Singh’s was, in our opinion, the performance of the night. When he was elected leader of the NDP in October 2017 many in the NDP felt they had “found their Trudeau.” He dressed well, had swagger and charisma and was charming in his desire to deliver a positive message.

This was on full display last night. He had a commanding presence, often looking directly into the camera, but was also the most laid-back and quickest with a quip. In a night on which Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Bernier were each questioned on their authenticity, Mr. Singh stood proudly and said “here I am.”

But is it too little, too late to have a real impact? Despite a strong campaign overall, the NDP still struggles to overcome a poor preceding year. They remain stuck below 15% in the polls. They may pick up a couple percentages, and it will be very interesting to see which parties they pull those votes from, but 20% still seems like it is out of reach.    

The worst-case scenario for Mr. Singh is for the Liberals and the Conservatives to be neck-and-neck right down to the wire and for the NDP vote to shift over to the Liberals to ensure a Liberal rather than a Conservative minority. That scenario could leave the NDP well short of the 12 seats required for official-party status. In short, disaster.  

Instead, Mr. Singh seems to be fighting for relevance in a minority government by making the case that he can work well with the Liberals and the Greens in opposition to the Conservatives and the Bloc.  

Elizabeth May, Green Party of Canada

Elizabeth May similarly seems to be hoping for a minority government in which the Green Party holds sway as a small but critical voting block. In fact, she pointedly told Mr. Scheer that he will never be Prime Minister and appealed to voters on the left to ensure that Mr. Trudeau is not handed his second majority. Ms. May recognizes, clearly, that many left-of-centre voters are much more open to the NDP or the Greens once they feel secure that it will be a Liberal rather than a Conservative Prime Minister.

Ms. May’s problem is that it is a very narrow set of outcomes that sees three or four seats as a difference maker in votes. Mr. Blanchet is much better positioned to be the power broker at this point. To secure a real shot at relevance, Ms. May needs to get to 10 or 12 seats. Her performance last night is unlikely to help that cause, especially if Mr. Singh continues to pull support away.

With relative stability in terms of polling numbers across Canada for much of the campaign, the final two weeks will have an outsized focus on one of the only dynamic regions of the country: Quebec. This nicely sets up the French-language debate on Thursday. If and how the polling numbers move between now and then will dictate recalibrations of the relative party strategies. It should be a good one!