With the Federal Election just around the corner, there is one last race to take place before the big show in the fall. That race is the Manitoba Provincial Election, with election day being September 10th. So far, this campaign hasn’t been spectacular and could easily be called low-key. That might partially be because Manitoba Conservative Leader Brian Pallister has been ducking debates with the other leaders, leading some to put a rubber chicken to stand in for his empty seat. But last night there was no ducking or hiding, as it was the one and only televised leaders’ debate:

The fifty minute debate took place at the middle of the campaign and while there weren’t any knockout blows, there were some interesting points that came from it that caught my eye. The format of the debate itself was odd, and probably didn’t help the quality of the debate itself, but that’s another matter for another day. Going into last nights debate every leader had their objectives, or at least one would assume. But given the performances on the night, it was clear not everyone attained those objectives.

Conservative Leader Brian Pallister’s performance was the one that leapt, and that makes sense; as the outgoing Premier, he was the target of most questions on the night and was the centre of most attention. That was very par for the course, yet Pallister didn’t deal with that dynamic well at all. He was gruff, rude and just down right cranky. He was the proverbial guy yelling for people to get off his lawn, which by the end of the debate was just grating on the senses. He looked like someone who had ducked a bunch of debates and really didn’t want to be at this one. On top of that, he made a point on constantly trying to talk over NDP Leader Wab Kinew as he tried to answer questions, and then when others tried to talk over him, he chastised them for doing so, demanding they show him respect and not talk over him. It was all far too precious on his part.

Beyond his tone during the debate, Pallister did something else last night I can’t remember seeing before in a debate. During an exchange with Kinew about Manitoba Hydro, Pallister called out Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand, by name, saying that the NDP had tried to use the crown corporation to buy votes from the Métis before. That comment is in line with his past comments when he cancelled funds owed to the Métis, calling it “persuasion money”. But think about this folks; the sitting Premier of Manitoba, went on a debate televised around the province, and said that following the Constitution of Canada, the rulings of the Supreme Court and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples was basically “vote buying”, as if it was somehow illegitimate. That was galling, but given the source, not shocking. That’s the kind of comment most leaders would never make in public, but Pallister made it in his own attempt to win votes with people who are opposed to Indigenous rights. It was an ugly moment that really typified Pallisters three years as Premier.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew had a good night and looked very comfortable on the stage. He came into this debate with the advantage of having worked in television prior to his elected life, so he looks at ease and relaxed on the stage. That shone through and looked all the better when compared to his Conservative opponent. Kinew didn’t have any slips on the night and looked solid compared to the rest, which is a win on the night. He also parried the attempt attacks from the Conservatives, who tried to suggest he would raise the PST. In reply to the question, he was clear and straight to the point: No, they won’t raise it. Later in the debate Pallister asked him the exact same question again, something that the Conservatives had clearly scripted, saying that Kinew hadn’t answered the question. Kinew called out the question, repeated his answer and pivoted to other topics. It was a strong performance for a first televised debate for a new leader.

The other thing I noted about Kinew’s performance last night was the kind of language he used, especially when compared to what the Federal NDP is saying nationally. Where the federal party is pushing aside talk of balance and promising a lot, Kinew spoke very pointedly about balance in his approach and its importance. He spoke about making life more affordable for people while not promising to break the bank. It was a much more traditional NDP message, especially for Manitoba, and it was a stark contrast to what is happening on the federal scene. I will be interested in seeing how the different approaches will work out during their respective campaigns.

For Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont the performance wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what he needed. If he had any hope of supplanting the NDP as the alternative to the Conservatives, he missed that chance. Lamont wasn’t very comfortable on stage and you should see him reading most of his questions, with his head down looking at the paper on his lectern. He did have a very good question to Pallister, where he pointed to the reductions of Manitoba’s credit rating under his premiership, but that was one of the few bright moments for him on the night.

As for Green Leader James Beddome, he was there and I guess that should count as a win. Running in the same riding as NDP Leader Wab Kinew, it’s safe to say he would be sitting in the Manitoba legislature. In his closing remarks, he implored people to vote Green in one specific riding, but not the riding he’s actually running in. Further to that admission, there was only one other moment from Beddome that stood out to me, that deserves a bit more attention. During an exchange with Kinew, Beddome attacked the NDP leader for his pledge to give Manitobans a $350 rebate on their hydro bills, to help them pay for other alternatives to help lower their carbon footprint. For Beddome, this idea was akin to heresy, and he attacked Kinew saying that it would “encourage people to waste electricity”, that as if someone people would just feel the desire to be wasteful because they got some money in their pocket.

It came off as extremely tone deaf, because the point of Kinew’s proposal is to help those families who are struggling to get by to lower their carbon footprints, not just those who have enough money to afford to do it on their own. In his attack, not just the words but the tone of it, Beddome sounded like someone who has never struggled to pay a hydro bill before and sounded so seriously disconnected from the reality that so many people face. Furthermore, what Kinew is proposing is eerily similar to carbon tax proposals that the Greens have put out for years: giving people rebates, taxing carbon, letting the market decide how they lower their emissions. It seems odd for someone to oppose something the federal Greens have been pushing for a long time, especially when Mr. Beddome himself is right now the Federal Green candidate in Winnipeg-South Centre for the upcoming election. I wonder what his federal leader thinks of his views on that.

But for the night, there were no big winners and this debate didn’t seem to move the needle in a big way. While Pallister looked dower and unhappy to be there, Kinew performed well. Kinew gave the performance that he needed and while it wasn’t the best case scenario for the NDP, it was a very good showing. It was a chance for Kinew to re-introduce himself to the voters and he looked steady, solid and most importantly, ready to lead. For the NDP, that will help keep this race alive and the result in play right until voting day.

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