A Debate With No Winners, But a Bit More Clarity

L. Ian MacDonald

Oct. 8, 2019

In the first of the federal election campaign’s two debates sanctioned by the new Leaders’ Debates Commission, Trudeau held steady, Scheer came out snarling and Singh became a better-known commodity.

Two things happened away from the TV leaders’ debate studio that may have broken to the advantage of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

First, in the hours before the debate, there was a breakthrough agreement in Ontario schools, meaning no strike by thousands of workers shutting down the provincial school system on debate day.

Uncounted kids had a normal day at school and their parents, instead of seething and spending the day with them, got to pick them up and take them home as on any other school day.

As a bonus for Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t make a statement and wasn’t even in the shot.

Which didn’t prevent Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from ragging on Scheer about Ford during the debate, with the usual requisite references to Stephen Harper for good measure.

Scheer noted Trudeau’s preoccupation with provincial politics, notably the sweeping unpopularity of Ford. “The leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party is open,” Scheer noted, suggesting Trudeau “could go for that” after the federal election.

And then, on Tuesday morning following the debate, Scheer was again in the Greater Toronto Area to announce upgrades in local transit, particularly in battleground 905, the suburban beltway around the country’s largest city and home to at least two dozen swing seats won by the Tories in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015.

He pledged that the Conservatives, if elected, would invest another $11 billion in the Ontario line subway running north of the city as well as another $6 billion in the Yonge Street subway extension.

Scheer said the urban transit investments would “reduce commute times and relieve traffic congestion.” Anyone accustomed to driving around Metro Toronto at rush hour can relate to that.

Scheer made the announcement accompanied by the mayors of Markham and Richmond Hill, again with Ford nowhere in sight.

Scheer’s Toronto announcement was at least on the high road, in sharp contrast to his vicious opening salvo in Monday night’s debate, when he began with a reference to Trudeau’s blackface party all those years ago.  Though he was 29 at the time, the question still arises among some voters as to what he could have been thinking as a young educator.

The Conservative brain trust was clearly determined to begin on that low note and proceed from there along the low road. They evidently decided to play the card early, while voters were still watching the early 7 p.m. start (four o’clock in Vancouver, where many commuting voters missed the debate for that very reason).

“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” said Scheer neglecting to mention that he is himself only now getting around to renouncing his dual U.S. citizenship, something he says he never spoke about because “no one ever asked about it.”

“You know, he’s very good at pretending things,” Scheer went on. “He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”

Scheer continued in a barrage of insults more personal than Canadians are accustomed to hearing in a leaders’ debate: “Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phoney, and you’re a fraud, and you do not deserve to govern this country.”

Trudeau had another agenda—notably on climate change, on which Scheer clashed with him about Ottawa’s carbon tax, vowing never to impose it.

At least on that, the leaders of the two major parties were offering different remedies to the most important environmental issue of our time.

For the rest you’d to have to say that, as between Trudeau and Scheer, the evening was pretty much without a winner.

One player did raise his standing with voters—NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who defined a tenable space of his own between Trudeau and Scheer.

Singh called them “Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny” and told voters they didn’t have to choose between Trudeau and Scheer on climate change. The NDP have been struggling to raise their poll numbers out of the teens and their leader’s recognition and approval numbers beyond that.

Singh may well have succeeded in both, demonstrating a clear-eyed perspective and a sense of humour that could yet take him places, at least to a clear third place, in the final days of the campaign.

Singh will certainly be hard-pressed on that score in Thursday’s French-language debate, in which Yves-François Blanchet of the resurgent Bloc Québécois will be staking a claim to the balance of power in the event of a minority House.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.