We are onto Day 2 of the 43rd General Election and after a first day that included some good speeches, some travel changes, some bus-on-plane contact and an interesting reminder that we are all, in fact, earthlings, the campaigns are now starting to stretch their legs. So while the various leaders are making the rounds out there, tonight the first big event of the campaign will come, one that has unusually high stakes for so early in a campaign:
Tonight at 8 pm EST we’ll see the first leaders’ debate, being hosted by Maclean’s and CityTv and moderated by Maclean’s Paul Wells, one of Canada’s top political writers. While there will be 38 days to go after this first encounter, it has stakes at this point in the race that are higher than usual for some. But aside from the stakes, part of what will be of note will be the fact that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau won’t even show up for it. This is the first time that I can think of where a national leader was invited to a national debate refused to go, but the debate still went on. Yes in the past Stephen Harper refused to do debates, but in those cases the debates ended up being cancelled as a result.
Never have we seen a situation where a leader didn’t show, but the show still went on. That will be a constant elephant in the room tonight, something that will be impossible to ignore because, to be frank, Mr. Trudeau will be the constant subject of a lot of the debate. And of course he will, he is the outgoing Prime Minister and it’s his last four years in government that will frame a lot of this discussion. This is part of the reason that I continue to be floored that Mr. Trudeau has decided to duck this whole event. For two hours on national television, his three opponents will be taking shot after shot at his record and approach, and never will they hear a rebuttal to any of it. Never will we hear Mr. Trudeau try to put a positive spin on his time in office, never will we hear the Liberal narrative, none of that. Anything he thinks that he gains by no-showing here must surely be washed out by that fact, right? And given the renewed drip of news around the SNC-PMO Scandal, would you really want to leave that all out there to be totally unopposed? That seems like it could be a big mistake that proves to be fatal later on.
Tonight is not just critical for the leader who has refused to show up, it’s also big for the other leaders. The strategy of tonight’s debate will be odd, given that Mr. Trudeau won’t be there and that he was likely to be the focus of the discussion and question. Who becomes that focus now? That could make for an odd dynamic on the stage. For Conservative Andrew Scheer, I would assume that he would want to engage with the other two leaders as little as possible and will do his best to engage directly with the audience. That’s not his strong suit, and given his awkward performance yesterday, that doesn’t bode well for tonight. For Green Elizabeth May, she will get more screen time by default with one less person on the stage. The question will be how she decides to use her time and where she directs her questions. In the past she has been accused of being a proxy for the Liberals in these debates, but with no Justin Trudeau there, that surely must change. This is her first debate in the spotlight after a good summer, and after a very rough week on so many levels, this will be the first time she faces serious pressure on this level.
But the leader with the most riding on tonight is the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh. The Orange Team has come into this campaign with its own challenges, from lower than normal polling, to fundraising, to candidate recruitment. This has become a big part of the narrative for Singh and his leadership for a year now, fairly or not. The fact is that the NDP is in existential danger at the start of this campaign, that leaves them with very little margin for error. That is why that Jagmeet Singh needs to have a great performance tonight and be the star of the show for all the right reasons. With his great performance at the launch of the campaign yesterday, he showed a glimpse of what he is capable of doing.
Ironically, not having Trudeau there might actually help Singh in this case. It’s clear that a big part of the Liberal strategy is to try to eat the NDP’s lunch and take as many of their seats as they can. Pushing the NDP out of the way could go a long way to ensuring the Red Team gets another majority term, and tonight’s debate would have provided Trudeau a golden opportunity to kneecap Singh and potentially end the NDP’s chances right at the starting line. If Trudeau managed to ensure that Singh had a bad performance tonight, that could very well have been the end of the Orange Team in this race. But instead of showing up tonight in Toronto to deliver that blow, Trudeau is hiding out on the West Coast and giving Singh a chance to get on his feet and build some momentum. And given his strong performance yesterday in London, Singh may very well be in a position to take advantage of that opportunity.
So tonight the curtain on the first round of debates will lift and the show will really start to kick off. We’ll see who rises to the occasion and who crumbles under the pressure of the bright tv lights. Not all leaders’ debates are big but the timing and circumstances of this one seems bigger than normal. Will it deliver on the hype? We’ll see tomorrow but for tonight, the eyes of a nation will be on this debate and on the person who is conspicuous by his absence.