Still, there were winners. And losers.
The formats and medium of modern leaders’ debates tend to encourage shallowness and repetition. The goal of the debater isn’t to “win” by advancing the better argument, but rather to repeat slogans and fire off one-liners that will get picked up by viewers and, ideally, the media.
On that measure, there were a few memorable lines that served their speakers well. New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh criticized far-right People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier, saying “You don’t deserve a platform.” It’s was a good line, and he’s right. Bernier’s debate performance was more vandalism than art — just like his campaign.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tried to frame Liberal leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as both entitled and out of touch when he asked Trudeau “When did you decide the rules don’t apply to you?”
Trudeau, for his part, tagged both Bernier and Scheer at once, saying “Mr. Bernier, your role on this stage is to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately.” Later, Singh reminded Canadians that, regarding front-runners Trudeau and Scheer and their climate policies, they didn’t have to choose between “Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.” Green Party leader Elizabeth May, also on the climate subject, reminded her opponents that “You can’t negotiate with physics.”
With six leaders and five moderators in a debate that lasted two hours, even close observers were left with rough takeaways. While the common question after a debate is “Who won?,” the fact is that it depends. For a third- or fourth-place party with no chance of forming a government, “winning” looks different than if you’re vying to form a government. So, the best we can do is adjusted assessments of what the debate meant to each party.
For instance, for Yves-François Blanchet, the leader of the Québec separatist party the Bloc Québécois, his staunch defense of provincial jurisdiction and autonomy likely did him well in his province — the only province in which his party is running candidates. Trudeau didn’t make it out unscathed, but nor was he demolished. Many Liberals will consider his relative obscurity on stage a good night. May routinely appeared in command of the facts — unsurprisingly, because she typically is — and for the leader of a party polling in fourth place, national attention is always a win. Bernier’s party is polling around 2 percent. For him, the same is true. National attention will help him mobilize and coordinate, even though his performance was a clownish distraction.
The two standouts of the night were Singh — for good reasons — and Scheer — for bad ones. Singh was wry, affable, passionate, respectful and on message. He was constantly engaged by each of the other leaders. He stands to gain the most ground in the days to come as the traditional “winner” — that is to say, the leader for whom vote intention and favorability rises. It would have been hard to watch the debate and not come away with Singh’s message stuck in your head: I see you, I care, I’m fighting for you against the big guys while the others have — and will — let you down.
In contrast, Scheer melted into the background for much of the night. He didn’t get the one-on-one Scheer-Trudeau debate he needed. The Conservative leader isn’t the prime minster, and so doesn’t benefit from being a wallflower. But his performance, aside from an early jab and a few shots at Trudeau (Scheer opened the debate attacking the prime minister over the blackface and SNC scandals), was forgettable.
National debates don’t necessarily have a significant and lasting effect on polls. But they can have some effect, and they can affect momentum. For Singh, that’s good news. For Scheer, that’s bad news. But, on Thursday, the leaders will debate again — this time in French. Then, in under two weeks, Canadians will cast the ballots that decide which party and leader forms government. No debate will be decisive in determining who that will be, but each party leader will take any win they can get, wherever they can get it. And of all the candidates, Singh should be most satisfied with his performance Monday night.