Last night we saw the first debate of the 2019 Federal Election, and it was a night with a lot at stake for those taking part. While every party leader had questions and issues going into the night, this debate offered them all a chance to step forward and make an impact. How did that work out for the leaders then? Here is a sampling of views from last night:
In my view the first debate had a clear winner: Jagmeet Singh. He made the best of his chances to build off a strong first day of the campaign and rose to the occasion when he needed it most. He parried attacks from both Andrew Scheer and Elizabeth May, all while staying calm, cool, collected and on message. On a night when he could have brought all of his answers back to others, he kept bringing them back to the people he has met over the past year. He humanized the issues and brought a human face to all of these issues, an effective approach.
Scheer looked uncomfortable for a good part of the night and towards the end of the debate looked upset and at points angry, like he had enough of things. While he would have had nothing to gain by attacking Singh and May, he seemed to have a problem having a lack of a target in the room to aim his points at. And let’s face it, some of his comments created a lot of problem for him, like his accusation that Indigenous peoples protecting their nights were “holding Canadians hostage”. That was guaranteed to bring a strong reaction, and I have to wonder if it was an accident or intentional. On the whole, Scheer didn’t make Trudeau pay for not being there and wasn’t able to make a strong impression on voters.
As for Elizabeth May, her performance was one that could be best described as “up and down”. She showed her knowledge of topics that she has shown her knowledge of for a long time and had some good moments. But on the down side, she was flustered when called out on her troubles of the past week on the campaign and simply laughed off serious questions that were raised. He called Singh “absurd” when pointing them out, refusing to answer. And later in the scrum with media, when asked again about the fact that Green candidate Pierre Nantel says he is a sovereigntist, she again said that wasn’t true. That was despite the fact that he said only hours before that in fact he was. It was farcical and again raised questions about the readiness of the Green campaign.
But in my view the biggest loser of the evening was Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Not only was Trudeau leading Google searches on the night, with questions about where he was, his absence was a constant undertone for the debate. The fact that a picture like this came out of it is further proof that this tactic didn’t work:
Simply put, by not showing up Trudeau might have made the biggest mistake of the early campaign. With the NDP leader campaign for his political life, staring potential political oblivion in the face, Trudeau removed a lot of pressure by not showing up. This gave Singh the chance to find his feet and his voice, which he did and them some. Instead of the NDP campaign potentially being mortally wounded after Day 2 of the campaign, Singh found new life and grabbed a lot of people’s attention for the right reasons. If Singh can keep this up, this no-show could seriously come back to bit the Liberals in the rear, and it was completely within their control.
One last observation from the night is something that has been an open question ever since Jagmeet Singh was elected as leader of the NDP. He is the first person of colour to ever lead a Canadian political party into a campaign, and people have been wondering what other barriers and pressures he would face. Before the debate last night, we saw an example of some of that, one that I couldn’t help but notice:
Imagine going into a debate, the biggest debate of your political career, with your party sitting at the lowest levels of support in over a decade and your leadership being called a dud. Imagine the pressure that leader would be feeling, and then to that extreme pressure, add the pressure of being the first Sikh to be at that debate podium, being the first person of colour to take part in that exercise. And then add to that pressure, imagine having to walk in the door before you start to be faced with that kind of racism. That is intense pressure, the kind of pressure that I would argue no leader in Canadian political history has ever faced.
Facing that, many people would have understood if Singh had crumbled and folded under that pressure. Many leaders have done so under much less pressure so it wouldn’t have shocked. But yet facing all of that, all that pressure, all of that history, Singh didn’t just rise to the occasion, he excelled. Intense pressure can crush those facing it, destroying them. But we also have to remember intense pressure also creates diamonds and last night we saw a leader shine, not crumble. We’ll see if last nights performance will carry the NDP further or if it will make a dent in the polls. But last night Jagmeet Singh showed a lot of what he’s capable of and if he can continue to perform on that level, this campaign could get a lot more interesting.