Last night we saw the lone English debate and the final debate of the 44th General Election campaign. With such a tight race, two previous debates in French that have barely moved the needle and so much for all leaders to gain or lose, the scene was set for a night that could make or break this race to be the next Prime Minister of Canada. And what we saw last night really spoke to that reality, especially given how some leaders reacted (or overreacted).
While the previous two debates were lifeless, last night was the polar opposite. All the leaders had to come out swinging, as they were tested by strong questions from the moderators. While some commentators on Twitter (mostly those known to support the Liberals) complained about the format of the night and the intervention of lead moderator Shachi Kurl, I didn’t see it that way. The format will always be a problem with a 5-person debate, so there’s no silver bullet to solve that issue. But for Kurl and the performance of all questioners, I have zero complaints there. In the past many of the same people have complained about moderators letting leaders run roughshod over each other and not controlling a thing. So I really appreciated Kurl’s direct, factual and firm managing of this event. I hope that Kurl is brought back to do another debate when we come around to that point next time.
When it comes to the individual performances, there is a lot of ground to cover. Liberal Justin Trudeau formally threw aside any pretension of his former “sunny ways” and came out swinging, wildly at times and rarely landing. Under heavy pressure from all side, he came across as angry, bitter, frustrated and made some factually questionable statements, especially in regard to his record on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The worst example of this came when he denied that his government was fighting Indigenous children in court, which brought this real-time fact check:
Folks, that was the ultimate factcheck right there, by the very person who brought said case before the courts and completely caught Trudeau out. It made him look craven and just plain bad. He looked even worse when he actually had the nerve to say that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was actually “harming reconciliation” because he was being so “cynical”, which was a moment that felt like a massive gaslighting exercise against most Indigenous peoples in this country. It also reminded me of his worst moment in the 2019 English debate, when he accused Singh, the first non-Caucasian leader in Canadian, of not doing enough to stop racism. It was the same “you should be grateful to me” kind of attitude that we’ve seen snippets of throughout his time as Liberal leader, but this time was much worse. It was condescending, speaking down and treating others with disrespect because they dared to call him out on his crap. And that’s before we even get to his punching down at Green Leader Annamie Paul with his quip about caucus management. He showed a very different side of himself, and not his best side. That performance was not one of someone who was confident in himself or his prospects, and they showed.
Conservative Erin O’Toole stayed on message for the most part. While he didn’t score any big hits against Mr. Trudeau, he didn’t sustain any fatal blows either. He got a couple of shots in but really, he spent the night trying to keep his nose clean. Compared against Mr. Trudeau, he looked much better, but that really isn’t saying too much in the grand scheme of things.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet played the usual role of the Bloc leader in the English debate and lost nothing by his performance. He was sullen, angry and clearly didn’t want to be there, complaining multiple times about not getting enough time even though he wasn’t trying to get in on the discussion. His attacks on the moderators as well came off as very bad, as well as his third time using the section of the debate on reconciliation to try to paint himself as the ultimate victim. It was the kind of performance that would make most people cringe, but he has no shame in his game. It was all deliberate because he feels that it will help him out. We’ll see if it actually does this time.
As for Green Leader Annamie Paul, she fared much better this time around, scoring strong points while making a good impression. My biggest take away from her performance though was to think of the “what if?”, as in “what if her party wasn’t imploding all around her?” She gave a good performance, but her party is in no state to build on it. Given her position with her party, the infighting and the must-win nature of her race in Toronto Centre, it’s possible that another loss on September 20th will mean that was the last time Canadians will get to see her on such a stage before a national audience. We’ll see if that comes to pass, but I couldn’t help but note it at the time.
But for me the best performance of the night belonged to Jagmeet Singh. When Mr. Trudeau aimed his anger at him, Singh replied with a sunny demeanor, facts and pointing to Trudeau’s own record. He stayed on message, connecting through the screen and made the case that Canadians have another choice beyond voting red or blue. He not only performed well himself, but when contrasted against Trudeau bitter, sullen approach to the night, he looked that much better. He showed why he continues to be rated as the most popular Federal leader in the country and put his best foot forward. It was his best night for the campaign so far.
Now if this debate will actually change much remains to be seen. The last two debates barely moved any needles so it’s totally possible that this one won’t either. But honestly, we won’t know until we know. The fact is that every leader had a goal last night and were aiming for a certain performance. Everyone didn’t come away from the night having done so, which means we’ll see a lot of desperate behaviour over the next 10 days. But one thing I feel safe in saying is that in this crazy campaign, if that debate didn’t move any votes, nothing was going to in this election.