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JIM VIBERT: Federal leaders debate sets the tone for a nasty finish

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during the Federal Leaders Debate in Gatineau, Quebec on Oct. 7, 2019.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during the federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Oct. 7, 2019. - Sean Kilpatrick / Pool

The instant his microphone was turned on Monday night at the leaders’ debate, Conservative Andrew Scheer turned on Justin Trudeau.

He called Trudeau a fraud and a phoney who doesn’t deserve to run the country.

It’s tempting to say the debate went downhill from there. It didn’t, but neither did it rise to a substantive discussion of Canada’s future. Scheer’s opening salvo was as personal as it got or could get, absent a little bawdy trash talk about the Prime Minister’s mama.

"(H)e's very good at pretending things," said Scheer of Trudeau. "He can't even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he's always wearing a mask.”

That Scheer’s vitriolic opening was ostensibly in reply to a question about leadership on the world stage matters not a whit, except to confirm that it was planned, rehearsed and intended for use early, never mind the question.

It’s also a pretty good benchmark for where this election stands. The Liberals and Conservatives are virtually tied atop the national polls and are the only parties with a realistic chance of winning. But, because of regional strengths and weaknesses, the Liberals are positioned to win more seats and retain the government. 

The Conservatives see the election – theirs to win just a couple of months ago – slipping away and they know that their only path to victory runs over the political corpse of Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau’s responses were more measured, less personal and tended to focus on policy differences between the Liberals and Conservatives, although he did, by association, characterize Scheer as a bit of a right-wing nut when he said People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier was on the debate stage to say publicly what Scheer thinks privately.  

While the battle between Trudeau and Scheer was the dominant dynamic of the night, the other four leaders were not bit players.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in particular, was able to cut through the noise and remind Canadians that there is an alternative to the squabbling on his right.

"What we have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing about who's worse for Canada," he said. "We've got to start presenting who's best for Canada."

Later, during an exchange between Trudeau and Scheer on the climate crisis, Singh said Canadians “don’t need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.” Trudeau is Delay and Scheer Deny.

Trudeau got squeezed right and left. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called on divine intervention to save Canada from four more years of unfettered Liberal rule.

"God please, you don't win a majority,” May said to Trudeau, whose climate change plan she says is disappointing and bound to fail.

In a minority Parliament, the Bloc, the NDP or the Greens – or some combination thereof – would hold the balance of power – or the “balance of responsibility” by May’s reckoning – and each of those parties propose more aggressive action on climate change than anything the Liberals have on offer.

For Canadians outside of Quebec, the debate was an introduction to Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who emerged as one of those Quebec separatists it’s hard not to like – more in the mould of Rene Levesque than Jacques Parizeau. 

Blanchet was mostly along for the ride in the English debate, but he made Scheer squirm with the allegation that the Conservative leader says different things in French and English about Quebec’s controversial secular law.

As a debate, it was a bust. The format all but guaranteed it would be. Six leaders and five topical themes in 120 minutes left time for the leaders to deliver their carefully crafted talking points and not much more.

Scheer’s attacks on Trudeau were, no doubt, welcome red meat for the Conservative base, but they won’t move votes to the Conservatives.

Rather, it was the strength of Singh’s performance that presents the greatest threat to the Liberals and offers the most hope to Conservatives, who win national elections when the left-of-centre vote is divided between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

In a tight race like this one, a little Liberal support bleeding to the NDP could be all the Conservatives need to win seats in three-way contests that they would have lost in head-to-head battles with the Liberals. It wouldn’t take many of those to tip the balance in the Conservatives favour.

Monday night’s debate offered some political theatre and not much more. It did, however, set a nasty tone for the home stretch of the campaign. Expect the mud, if not the fur, to fly.

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