I have to admit that the start of this federal campaign period has been pretty underwhelming for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to expect better of political parties or because I’ve seen much better in my time on the Hill, but the run up to the start of this campaign has been fully of puzzling moves from all parties that have just left me wondering “What are they thinking?”. At times it feels like they are almost tripping over each other to make these mistakes, as one comes on top of the other.
Yesterday we saw a perfect example of this. Conservative Andrew Scheer gave his big press conference in which he gave his own non-apology for past comments. No instead he tried to deflect and call out the Liberals, trying to pivot to a totally different issue; Justin Trudeau’s refusal to date to commit to take part in the Maclean’s and Munk Debates. Predictably, that attempt failed as he completely whistled past the issue that everyone was there to hear about and it even led to this response from a respected Conservative commentator:
Despite that failure on the day, that hasn’t stopped the Conservatives from trying to point to this issue and make some hay from it. And really folks, they’re not wrong to point this out. Yes Mr. Scheer needs to show some real contrition, which he failed to do yesterday, but there is this other story sitting out there that really doesn’t make any sense:
The story came out a couple of days ago that the Justin Trudeau had not yet confirmed attending either of those other debates, despite the fact that the other party leaders either have confirmed or at working on the details to finalize their confirmation. In the case of the Maclean’s debate, they’ve made it clear; their debate will go ahead, with or without the Liberal leader. And with that, a story has been created out of nothing, completely because of the Liberals decision, or lack there of to date.
And folks, it’s a move that honestly makes no sense at all, strategically or politically. If Andrew Scheer or any other Conservative leader refused to take part in a debate, that wouldn’t shock many because the Conservatives have been known to do that before. And when they did that, the Liberals didn’t hesitate to chastise them for doing so. Part of the Liberal brand has been about being different, open and transparent. Justin Trudeau has made a point of at least saying he’s accessible and willing to talk to people.
So how does ditching two televised debates square with that brand and history? Simply put, it doesn’t; it’s totally against brand for Trudeau and honestly creates a story and an impression out of nothing. It hands the Liberals opponents a cudgel to beat them over the head with, especially because like when the Conservatives did this in the past, there is no good excuse for skipping. The only plausible example is that you don’t want to face your opponents and you’re afraid, which of course creates a story. It also gives the other parties oxygen at a time when they all need it the most and a platform to get back support when they are desperate for it.
Further to that point, you have to look at where the other parties are sitting at this point. The Conservatives are slipping and thanks to what’s happening in Ontario, they are on the verge of being pushed out of a chance to form government. The New Democrats are struggling to put it politely and for them, everything is riding on a strong performance from Jagmeet Singh in that first debate on September 12th. And for the Greens, while they were riding higher at the start of the summer, those numbers have started to come back down to earth. Simply put, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are in a much better position today than they were in June and they are in a position to be able to do some serious damage to their opponents’ chances in that first debate. A good performance coupled with a bad on from any of the other leaders could help cement their re-election chances and maybe put them on the bath to securing a safe majority.
To put it bluntly, the Liberals have the advantage right now and couple really make some hay in that first debate. So you’d think they would be eager to show up to that debate to take advantage of that, and strike at their opponents when they are weakened. But by waffling on Trudeau’s participation, they’ve given all of those other parties a bit of life and each day that his participation remains an open question, the more and more life that they get. Just like Andrew Scheer taking a week to address his past, the longer Justin Trudeau doesn’t confirm to participate in those debate, the bigger a story it will become.
That could be a big price to pay and for what? What is the upside of not showing up and hiding? You could argue that it’s the ultimate front runners’ tactic, but the lack of risk of showing up to those debates makes the price paid for not showing much greater than any potential gains. Also it would help create an impression that Trudeau is either afraid to defend his record or he’s too arrogant to lower himself to participate. Neither case may be true, but those are deadly impressions that could easily take hold, especially given the past and history of the name Trudeau.
And if that all comes to pass, the Liberals will have no one to blame but themselves for the damage because this whole situation would be of their creation. By simply having answered “yes” to both of those debate invites, the Liberals would have avoided any hint of a story like this. Yet here we find ourselves, the Liberals waffling on their participation and slowly opening the door to a potentially bad story of their own creation, one that they won’t be able to control. Will it go as far as the Scheer example from this week has (and continues to go)? We’ll see but if is the kind of thing we’re going to keep seeing in this campaign, it’s going to be a long and painful couple of months.