We have the answer. A two-hour debate with six political leaders, five moderators, five audience questions and answers limited to less than a minute doesn’t work.
Inevitably there were moments when it was impossible to know what was being said as leaders interrupted each other, sometimes shouting. And when you could hear, it was hard to remember what the original question was. Not surprisingly, the leaders used every opening go on the attack or go back to their campaign policy clichés. There were built-in exchanges between the leaders of about four minutes. But those exchanges divided between six leaders, with the time evenly distributed, left 40 seconds each.
So, Canadians who stuck with the format to try to learn more about the leaders had to sift through short exchanges and many standard positions. If voters make their choices based on substantive answers, tonight didn’t help them much.
It was not a format designed to give viewers a chance to take stock of the leaders’ vision for Canada.
Yes, there were moments.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s opening salvo ignored the theme of the question posed and Scheer launched into what appeared to be a rehearsed attack on his chief adversary, Liberal Justin Trudeau. Scheer said Trudeau is always wearing a mask – a feminist mask, a middle-class mask, etc. - and told Trudeau, “you are a phony and a fraud, and you do not deserve to run this country.”
Early in the debate, the leader of the People’s Party, Maxime Bernier’s views, were challenged. Bernier repeated that he wants to limit immigration levels to Canada. Green leader, Elizabeth May called Bernier’s position “completely appalling and so horrific.” Trudeau found a chance to link Scheer to Bernier, telling Bernier, “you say publically what Mr. Scheer thinks privately.”
Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, continually complemented Trudeau for his “fine words” and then went on to talk of broken Liberal promises asking Trudeau, “why did you let down people who voted for you?” This was Singh’s third debate in the campaign, and he is again getting good reviews for a solid performance. Singh used every chance to make his pitch that only the NDP will work for the people. His best line probably was telling Canadians concerned about climate change; they “do not need to choose behind Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.”
Elizabeth May stuck closely to her Green Party climate emergency theme. She returned to it time and again. May told Trudeau she hoped the Liberals would not get a majority in the election. But May also attacked Scheer attacking his “short term, greedy and selfish policies.”
From the get-go, Trudeau tried to stay above the fray. He repeated again, and again the accomplishments of the Liberal government and the talked of the work that still must be done. During the moments when the leaders debated each other, Trudeau tried to stay out of the fray and for the most part, did that quite successfully. Trudeau did use every chance he could to link Scheer to the years of Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
And that leaves the performance of the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Yves Francois Blanchet. He used his time to speak to Quebeckers and to try to make points in English that will stand him in good stead on Thursday night in the French debate. The leaders were all asked about Quebec’s Bill 21. Their positions will be poured over in Quebec. The popularity of the Bloc is going up. For those Quebeckers watching tonight, Blanchet probably helped his party’s fortunes. Another strong debate for Blanchet Thursday night might give the Bloc enough seats to give it the balance of power in the event of a minority government.
Singh wasted no time getting ready for more campaigning on Tuesday. He flew to Toronto right after the debate. Scheer will also make his way to the GTA. May heads to Quebec and Trudeau will take his planes to the far north. Blanchet and Bernier will be campaigning in Quebec.