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Last week we had the only English language debate of the 2021 federal election and boy, was it a doozy.
Before I get into it, I want to point out just how insane it is that there was only one English debate this election. The Leaders’ Debates Commission always puts on one French and one English debate, but oftentimes other media outlets will organize supplementary debates on top of those. TVA organized a single additional French debate, but English media was nowhere to be seen this time around. It’s a bit of a dorky line, but democracy truly does die in darkness, and debates bring more eyes to campaigns than just about anything else, so to not have them at least in some form is quite disappointing.
I realize the pandemic likely had a role to play in this, but even a virtual debate would have been better than nothing. In fact, it may even have been better to hold the debates over Zoom, then they could have muted the candidate’s mics when it wasn’t their turn to talk.
Speaking of which, as is common in any debate, there was a lot of talking over one another, disregarding the rules and the moderators’ insistence that they follow them, people complaining about losing out on their speaking time, and so on and so forth. This is nothing new, and I find it funny that for so many this is the only thing they bring up after the debates. Yes, the party leaders talk over each other in the debates, we all know it’s not productive, let’s move on.
In terms of overall performance, I don’t think anyone stood out as being particularly fantastic or noticeably off their game, all of the leaders did a reasonable enough job. That is, except for Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois. In normal fashion, he spent most of his time rambling about nonsense, whining about the framing of the questions and the other party leaders, incessantly pointing out his lack of speaking time, and overall not really bringing much substance or value to the debate at all. For a party that supports practically outlawing the English language in Quebec, it makes no sense to me why we allow them to take part in the English debate and waste everyone’s time.
One person who was noticeably absent from the debate was Maxime Bernier from the People’s Party of Canada. While I understand that he wasn’t invited because his party does not have a single seat in Parliament and so they did not qualify, his absence was noticeable. The party has seen a recent polling surge that seems like it may end up securing them their first elected seat in Parliament. It also seems like excluding him from the stage only serves to feed the narratives of his rabid conspiratorial base, which doesn’t do any of us any favours.
If anyone, Trudeau was the most off his game, though this is more than likely the result of everyone having their knives out for him. Even the questions felt tilted against him, which isn’t necessarily unfair as he is the one vying for a third term, but this certainly was not a place where Trudeau felt comfortable and you could see it. When things got too heated he would get aggressive and it did not come off well. He also tried a few ill-timed and half-baked attacks, primarily levelled at O’Toole, which never went anywhere. His best line though was in response to Green leader Annamie Paul. After she criticized him for his treatment of outspoken women in his caucus he came back at her with, “I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you,” in reference to the recent floor crossing of former Green MP Jenica Atwin to the Liberals. As a Canadian politics nerd, that one made me laugh.
Speaking of Annamie Paul, I’d say she performed quite well! Certainly the least well-known of any of the party leaders, she brought a level of maturity to the Green party seat at the table that I feel was sorely lacking with Elizabeth May. Paul is much more poised and well suited for a debate stage than May ever was, and she really delivered. She spoke to her unique identity and perspective as a Black female party leader, unique policy prescriptions like guaranteed livable income, working with the other parties to get things done, and a few other Green party staples. If I were a Green supporter, I don’t think I could have been much happier with that performance (though the internal issues of the party are a different story). Will this move the needle for the Green party in any way? I doubt it, but Paul used her fifteen minutes of fame wisely.
Singh’s performance was pretty unremarkable if you ask me. Nobody could fairly say he did a bad job, not even close; he stuck to his guns, managed to talk about medicare and taxing billionaires more than you would think the questions would allow, and he exuded the same onstage charm he always does. He just didn’t take any risks, and so I don’t think he won anyone over with his performance. All in all, he delivered what was expected of him, which ain’t bad.
The big winner of the night though was Erin O’Toole, partly as a result of low expectations but also because of his genuinely solid performance. Much more well-spoken than Andrew Scheer ever was, O’Toole came off as caring, knowledgeable, and as someone who is all-around capable of leading. Was he lying through his teeth most of the time? Absolutely, a lot more than any of the other leaders. But is that going to matter to anyone who tuned in? Of course not, nobody would ever put in the type of effort needed to realize that. His second half was certainly weaker, as this is when he started talking about his party’s “GST Holiday” nonsense and cutting pandemic spending programs, neither of which was a good look for him. But overall, I think O’Toole offered a textbook example of why you should under-promise so that you can over-deliver.
All in all, I enjoyed the debate as much as any other. It’s always fun to see the ideas and (mostly) the personalities clash in real time. However, with the election now less than a week away, the debate didn’t do much to change the landscape as we know it; it’s still a dead-heat between the Liberals and Conservatives, with neither looking like they will be in majority territory come the 20th. Debates are really just a time for someone to mess up, but if nobody does, then it’s usually just a wash. So long as it gets more people to engage with elections though, I say debate away.