On the Path to a New Government, These Debates Matter

Brian Klunder, Senior Counsel, Temple Scott Associates

Campaigns matter. 

Debates matter.

Disregard anyone who says a national leaders’ debate does not matter. A debate doesn’t require a knockout blow or superstar performance to make a real difference in a campaign. This very realization forces campaign teams to schedule countless hours for debate prep in their leaders’ schedules [usually denoted as personal time in the daily itinerary].

With polls showing an extremely close race and a minority government likely, the federal leaders’ debates this week also mattered and will be a factor in whoever forms government after September 20.

I watched the debates with several questions in mind and sought to answer them in an effort to see how I expect them to impact the election and its outcome. 

  1. Prime Minister Erin O’Toole? Erin O’Toole is leading the most centrist federal Conservative campaign in a generation. His debate performance was much like his campaign. Solid and well prepared.  Many Canadians saw someone who could be a future Prime Minister. O’Toole showed his strength on global files and the economy but stumbled on questions during the French debate relating to child care. His back and forth on assault weapons may confuse the voters he most needs to attract outside rural Canada. Undecided voters may wonder if his party and caucus are willing to be as centrist as he is trying very hard to be.  O’Toole’s debate performance will solidify his vote – the question is whether the debate will grow it?
  2. Candidate Trudeau? In the campaign’s early days, Justin Trudeau tended to wear his Prime Minister’s hat too often. Some of this was necessary as he addressed questions about the rescue mission in Afghanistan.  Still, in speaking as PM, he often measures words too carefully for someone fighting for their political life.  In the French debate, we saw Candidate Trudeau – someone who is ready to fight for every vote. His “I am a Quebecer. I will always be a Quebecer” line invoked memories of the combative tone of his father. This combativeness is where Trudeau performs best during a campaign. Yet, Candidate Trudeau made fewer appearances during the English debate, where he was often on the defensive. The scrappy candidate of the French debate needs to be consistently there over the final 10 days of the campaign. Will it be enough?
  3. Jagmeet Singh and his convictions? Anybody but Conservative (or ABC) is a tried-and-true Liberal tactic. A Liberal campaign will use the possibility of a Conservative government to convert left-leaning voters [usually from the NDP] to stop a Conservative victory. Jagmeet Singh worked hard in the debates to show his strong convictions and that he would bring these to Parliament on issues like climate change, reconciliation and housing affordability.  Victory for Jagmeet Singh is holding the balance of power in a minority Parliament. I believe he was successful.  The ABC movement does not seem to be working in this campaign. As a result, I expect the NDP will likely hold the balance of power in an expected minority government and have sizeable influence over the next government regardless of who forms it.
  4. The Bloc? The Bloc matters in Quebec. Yves-François Blanchet presented himself in both debates as someone who puts the interest of Quebec front and centre. Blanchet is also fighting on multiple fronts, and it was not always apparent during the debates who he thinks his opponent is in the election – the Conservatives or the Liberals. He will remain a force, but Justin Trudeau also kicked him in the shins with his “I am a Quebecer” line. We’ll see if it hurts his campaign to take more seats from the Liberals in Quebec.
  5. The Greens? Annamie Paul surprised me. I thought her combative reputation would throw other leaders (all male) off stride, but instead, we saw a subdued participant, strong on files but making no real impression. I wish we saw her combativeness, as I expect it would have made a difference in the Green trajectory.
  6. The wildcard? Maxime Bernier wasn’t even at the debates, but some polling shows the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) at close to 10% in public opinion. This makes him a big wild card. The question is, are those votes coming from the Conservatives and can that vote be pulled back without upsetting Erin O’Toole’s centrist credentials.  It is worth watching to see if the PPC votes cause some very strange and interesting splits in ridings, causing unexpected results.

This debate mattered. We’ll confirm precisely how much in 10 days.

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