Justin Trudeau entered this electoral campaign looking for the majority. But he was a minority of one when he took the stage of the English-speaking leaders debate Thursday night.
If this is a nation grumpy from the pandemic and the mere act of an election while COVID-19 is still raging, the mood of this marquee event matched the temperament of the time. Trudeau took the most hits, which can make the next few days and weeks even more unpredictable for him.
Canada may well end another minority government after September 20, forcing all of these leaders to work together. No matter who wins, the first task will be to overcome the animosity on display at the Canadian Museum of History on Thursday night.
It was Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, the only one on stage with no aspirations to become prime minister, who set the tone midway through the event, speaking of how “aggressive this debate has become.”
Gone are the sleepy and conversational performances of the previous two debates, both in French, this campaign.
The opening questions to all leaders went directly to their vulnerabilities. Why did Trudeau call the elections? How can Blanchet defend legislation that has discriminated against minorities in Quebec? Will the leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, ever be financially responsible? How would Conservative leader Erin O’Toole deal with social conservatism within his group and party?
Green Party leader Annamie Paul was not spared either: she was asked how she could lead amid all the conflicts in her party.
For the record, Trudeau said this election is about a post-pandemic future that should begin immediately after the election. “You’re going to hear some very, very different, very strong ideas that are radically different.” That was an accurate forecast. O’Toole said he was the leader. “I’m driving the bus to make sure this country gets back on track.” Singh said he would explain his promises, mainly by punishing the ultra-rich, and Blanchet was insulted by the suggestion that Quebec was racist.
“I had to crawl over a lot of broken glass to get here,” Paul said. Fortunately for her, that could have been good preparation for Thursday night. Of all the leaders, Paul probably had the best night. The first woman of color in a leadership debate, her voice shone like the loudest and clearest of the cacophony.
Perhaps that energetic start set the stage for the discussion that followed. But it was also at stake.
Each of the leaders entered these debates with much to save, including political careers, but no one as much as conservative and liberal leaders. O’Toole needed to preserve the fragile momentum that he has built up to date in this election. By effectively rejecting Trudeau’s standard anti-conservative attacks, he may have been successful. Trudeau, meanwhile, needs to save his liberals from the defeat in the elections that he unleashed in the country. This accumulation will not have helped.
Advance polls open on Friday. Any number of people watching Thursday night’s debate could be marching straight to the polls within 24 hours of the fireworks-laden spectacle.
Still, despite all the heat and light, no clear question emerged on the ballot. All the leaders except Trudeau came to the debate with a litany of grievances, but no clear and focused issue to send people to the polls.
Perhaps the question does not arise.
The quest for a great “coup de grace” is more than a cliché for leaders’ debates: it is a relic of another era, before elections were fought with personalized calls and micro-approaches in different parts of the country.
Anyone looking for that great dramatic moment, the one that re-establishes national trend lines, has missed how all parties speak nationally but fight locally. If large and broad national numbers determined the fate of the elections, after all, the Conservatives would have won in 2019 based on the popular vote.
What most parties will do is take segments of last night’s spirited debate, cut them up, and then distribute them to specific foci of support. Immediately after a debate, on social media, everyone is declared the winner.
Yet amid the noise and fury on stage at the Museum of History Thursday night, it was not clear that any winner emerged among the four people challenging Trudeau for his work.
They repeatedly asked why Trudeau had called the elections. Standing in the center of the group, flanked by leaders eager to remind him of everything his government had not done in the past six years, the Liberal leader might have asked the same question.
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