Federal Election Debates: Do or Die?

September 16, 2019

Federal election debates: Do or die?

Leaders’ debates play an essential role in Canada’s federal elections. The debates engage Canadians in the electoral campaign. They provide voters a forum to compare leaders’ points of view, and help enhance our knowledge of political parties and their policy platforms. But are they essential?

Must leaders attend all debates to win an election? Not necessarily. History shows that a political debate can be a double-edged sword. A leader can make gains with a good performance in a debate, but he can also get knocked out. The Mulroney/Turner debate in 1984 is a good example. The Liberal patronage appointments became a hot issue during the election, and Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney dealt a fatal blow to Turner’s campaign during the CBC television debate. “You, sir, owe the Canadian people a deep apology for having indulged in that kind of practice with those kinds of appointments,” Mulroney said. Turner defended himself by saying he had “no option” but to approve it. “You had an option, sir,” Mulroney said. “You could have said: “I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.” You had an option, sir, to say no, and you chose to say yes to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party.” Turner stuck with his weak defence, shrugging and saying: “I had no option.” We know the rest. The Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won 211 seats, the largest landslide majority government in Canadian history, while the Liberals, with only 40 seats, suffered the worst defeat for a governing party at the federal level at that time.

Could such a situation occur in this election? Maybe. But certainly not during the Munk Debate on Foreign Policy on October 1st or at last night’s Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate. Both of these will be unattended by Prime Minister Trudeau. Last night, the leader's absence overshadowed the exchanges between Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. The two-hour debate in English was centred on four major themes: the economy, foreign policy, indigenous issues and, lastly, energy and the environment. After the main segment of exchanges, each leader had 90 seconds for a closing statement. As observers noted, Trudeau’s absence was something Scheer tried to exploit, but it was the Tory leader who was turned into the substitute punching bag for the evening. However, there were no knock-out punches.

The main question is why has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided not to participate in the Munk and Maclean’s/Citytv debates? And why did he prefer instead to participate in a French-language debate, on October 2nd, hosted by TVA alongside the leaders of the Conservative, NDP and Bloc Québécois parties? Because Mr. Trudeau is more comfortable in French? No. The reason for his decision is elsewhere.

Among other topics, the debate organized by Munk, Maclean’s, Citytv was focused on foreign policy. If you had a chance to follow federal politics since the Liberals took power in 2015, you may have noticed that the Prime Minister scored in his own net more than once when he was abroad. Remember his visit to India in February 2018? All observers said it was a “diplomatic disaster”. The trip started off on a disappointing note, as the Trudeau delegation was greeted at the airport by a minister of state, who was not even a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. International and local observers speculated that Trudeau was being snubbed because of perceived ties between his Liberal Party and Khalistani separatists and extremists.

Things turned markedly worse for Trudeau when news broke in Canada that Trudeau’s entourage included a convicted assassin and former Sikh terrorist. The PM was also severely criticized for posing with his family for photo-ops while making praying-hand symbols and wearing Bollywood-style dresses throughout the eight-day trip.

With respect to China, most observers agree that Prime Minister Trudeau has two strikes. In late 2017, Trudeau arrived in China expecting to launch talks on a free trade deal and left empty-handed. Secondly, the Huawei issue. Since the daughter of Huawei’s founder was arrested in Vancouver in December, China has consistently attempted to intimidate Canada, first by arresting Canadian nationals in China and then by blocking imports of canola, meats and other agricultural products.

On relations with the U.S., let’s say it could be better but it could also be worse. Dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump is not easy. But you don't choose your neighbors. And Prime Minister Trudeau has to deal with an unpredictable giant who lives right next door. Mr. Trudeau is struggling hard to rebuild the relationship with Trump that had deteriorated so badly during the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his opponents, like Andrew Scheer, will always say that he is doing it the wrong way.

Back to the debates. For all those reasons, attending the debate in TVA is definitely a better pick for Justin Trudeau. The Quebec audience is one that Trudeau is keen to reach during his campaign. The Liberals are anticipating seat losses in Atlantic Canada and the Prairies. They hope to hang on to power by offsetting those losses with gains in Quebec and possibly Ontario. TVA did not invite Green Party Leader Elizabeth May or People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier to participate in their debate. Mr. Trudeau will have three snipers shooting at him instead of five. Of course, because the debate will be in French, Trudeau will be more comfortable to express his views than Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh. Also, it will be interesting to watch the new Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet. This will be his first experience at a leaders' debate. He should show no hesitation in attacking his opponents. You can bet he will ask other leaders, especially Mr. Trudeau, what is their position on Bill 21.

There is another good reason for Justin Trudeau to participate in the French debate hosted by TVA. This French TV network is largely popular in small regions in Quebec. It will be a great opportunity for the Liberals to gain support outside Montreal. Last polls show that the LPC has over 46% in Montreal followed by the BQ (13.8%), the CPC (12.9%), 12.4% (GPC) and NDP (11.8%). Outside Montreal, Liberals will be in tight races with Conservatives and the Bloc.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May is unhappy with TVA's decision to exclude her from the leaders' debate on October 2. "It is shocking to note that at a time when the Greens are performing very well in Quebec polls, TVA is excluding the Green Party of Canada from its debate," Elizabeth May was shocked when she learned of this decision.

The TVA network, which is not part of the media consortium that organizes the debates with the new commission, justifies its decision by saying that it only invites the leaders of the parties that are represented in Quebec. Ms. May's absence from the TVA debate must please Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

But with or without Elizabeth May and Maxime Bernier, Justin Trudeau will be the main target during the three leaders’ debates.

Things will probably prove more difficult for him during the debate in English on October 7. The CBC’s debate in French will be presented on October 10. Both will be held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau was in an advantageous position. He was the pretender to the throne. Like the other leaders of the day, Thomas Mulcair (NDP), Elizabeth May and Gilles Duceppe, he led his attacks on outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who carried the heavy burden of close to 10 years in power.

In 2019, the situation is quite different. It is Justin Trudeau who will be the target of his opponents. We will then see how Prime Minister Trudeau will defend himself in the face of this group fire from his opponents, who will show no mercy towards the once rock star of Canadian politics.