Here’s a different way of looking at Thursday night’s debate: It’s a rehearsal for two debate rookies.
Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh hit a federal debate stage for the first time. They were joined by Elizabeth May, who has done a couple of debates but not a full-on national TV debate like the one coming up on October 7.
That means this first debate of 2019 in front of a smaller TV audience than the coming full network debates provided the leaders with a platform with lower stakes. Jason Lietaer, President of Enterprise and a Conservative strategist, pointed out all three “need the practice.”
The debate stage had Scheer in the middle with May to his right and Singh to his left. The Conservative leader looked serious, very serious, waiting for his turn. The nerves showed in the first segment on the economy. All three rushed to try to make points talking over each other.
It forced the moderator, Paul Wells, to try and warn all three he would rein them in if the cross-talk continued. It got better for a while and then the rush to make their points led to exchanges that forced Wells to intervene again.
What I heard was a confident Jagmeet Singh focusing on the challenges average Canadians face and outlining specific promises. Those promises would be enormously expensive.
For example, his promises to deliver on but free pharmacare and free dental care sound good. But, Elizabeth May pointed out her party decided free dental care for all was too expensive a commitment.
Andrew Scheer promised to increase health and education spending, but there was not one specific program from him. And he repeatedly came back to the need to bring the debt under control. Promising to keep the debt under control didn’t win Stephen Harper a win in 2015. Canadians will be waiting to hear Scheer’s economic program fleshed out with real programs in the coming weeks.
Elizabeth May was, of course, very strong on the need for action on climate change but she wanted to make sure that viewers heard the other Green Party programs. At the end of the debate, she almost begged voters to consider the full Green Party platform repeating some of the non-environmental programs her party supports.
In debates like this one sorting out who won usually takes a few days. I didn’t hear a gotcha moment. It also didn’t feel to me that Justin Trudeau lost much by taking a pass and skipping the debate. For the debate rookies, Scheer and Singh, this was a practice round. The party debate coaches will look at the tapes and give all three leaders fresh tips in the rehearsals to come. Trudeau’s team will pour over the tapes just like a hockey coach about to go up against a new team picking out strengths and weaknesses.
With the debate out of the way, it’s back to the leader tours. NDP leader will be in Toronto Friday morning. Andrew Scheer will also be in the GTA. Elizabeth May will be doing media interviews in Toronto. And the no show, Justin Trudeau, will start his day in Trois Rivieres for his first crack at winning votes in Quebec.