Canada Election 2021: Five takeaways from one hot mess of a leaders debate

The big winners, losers, and weirdest moments in the federal leaders' English-language debate

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      The big winner

      Er…Annamie Paul?

      There was no clear candidate who stood head and shoulders above the rest in what turned out to be a shouting match at times. There was no proverbial “knock out”, as the Ottawa press gallery like to say, although there were a few zingers landed.

      Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole did what he had to do to not appear as scary as Justin Trudeau has been making him out to be on the campaign trail. But it was Green Party leader Paul who left the most positive impression by (mostly) staying above the fray.

      Paul was calm, self-assured, and down-to-earth, weaving personal anecdotes into her responses. She also gave (and then some) when things got testy.

      When asked about the controversy swirling around her own well-publicized leadership problems, Paul had one of the best lines of the night. Unlike the men she was surrounded by on stage, Paul noted that as a woman of colour she “had to crawl across broken glass to get here”. Point taken.

      Certainly, if the debate laid bare one burning truth it’s the lack of diversity in Canadian politics (in particular women) and how that may, in turn, be fuelling the growing polarization in Ottawa.

      The big loser

      Canadian voters.

      Those who might be tuning into the campaign for the first time had to be left scratching their heads. The format was a disaster failing to allow for much one-on-one debate between the leaders. The effect was that the leaders ended up talking over each other to try and get a word in edge-wise.

      The choice of moderator left a lot to be desired in the opinion of some observers.

      Shachi Kurl, president of the conservative-leaning pollster Angus Reid, interrupted candidates on a number of occasions. She had trouble managing the time given for answers leading her to either cut off candidates mid-sentence or not allow them enough time to respond to salvos from their competitors. Several breakdowns occurred during the debate where you couldn’t hear what the candidates were saying.

      Kurl set the tone for a bad start by arguing with Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet over Quebec’s law banning religious symbols. The exchange segued to Paul offering to “educate” Blanchet on racism, which Blanchet called an “insult.”

      Journalists selected by the Debate Commission posed pointed questions but at times offered asides to the responses that had the effect of making the event came off as more about the personal points of view of the journalists than about the candidates.

      Weirdest moment

      Trudeau telling Paul that he wasn’t “going to take any lessons on caucus management from you” was not exactly a shining moment for the Liberal leader. That came after Paul accused Trudeau of not being “a real feminist”. And brought up the controversies surrounding the departures of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, and Celina Caesar-Chavannes from the Liberal caucus. Paul mentioned the women by name on several occasions. 

      As was to be expected, Trudeau was the focus of most of the night’s attacks, but unlike the French-language debate the night before, Trudeau was more on the defensive and seemed flustered at times by the format. The short amount of time left for responses had him racing through his answers on occasion.

      O’Toole, by contrast, was able to sit in the weeds and pop up when called upon and came out of the debate relatively unmolested, forced not to answer questions that have been dogging him in recent days, in particular, his flip-flopping on the Liberal ban on assault-style weapons and why some of his candidates aren’t vaccinated. 

      The Conservatives released a costing of their election platform just before the debate, but there was little debate on that as well.

      The big surprise

      The number of times Singh said he “agreed” with O’Toole, especially on whether Trudeau should have called the election in the first place.

      The NDP leader also interrupted Paul on a couple of occasions and ignored her on others causing Paul to accuse Singh of “ghosting” the Greens. Ouch.

      Singh was at his best on the issue of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples but mostly stuck to the boilerplate answers when asked for details on his party’s platform.

      For example, on the NDP’s climate plan, he was able to offer a few more details than those laid out in the party’s official platform but didn’t have a convincing response when challenged by Trudeau on why his plan received the lowest grade of any of the major parties.

      Defining moment

      It’d be hard to pluck anything memorable from what was mostly a hot mess in contrast to the French-language debate, but O’Toole managed to come off more moderate than Trudeau has been making him out to be on the campaign trail in recent days.

      There was little time given for Trudeau to go one-on-one with O’Toole as he did in the French-language debate. After struggling in the French-language debate, O’Toole did what he had to do to appear prime ministerial. Trudeau did get in a couple of lines in against his main competitor. On diplomacy with China, for example, Trudeau cautioned against aggressive posturing espoused by the Conservatives when dealing with the superpower.  

      “You don’t lob tomatoes across the Pacific like Stephen Harper tried to do,” Trudeau said. 

      Trudeau had the most to lose. Whether he did enough to convince those sitting on the fence to vote for him remains to be seen. His combativeness may end up hurting more than helping him.

      Where we go from here

      The consensus emerging from the Ottawa pundit class is that there was no clear winner.

      But for those who tuned in, the debate (debacle?) might actually encourage more of them to sit on their hands than getting out to vote, which could spell trouble for the Libs. Cynicism? You betcha. With 10 days left in the campaign, it’s a sprint to the finish.