All six federal party leaders will take to the stage for the first time on Monday to try to gain an edge in what has been a largely deadlocked election campaign over the last three and a half weeks.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet duked it out just four days ago in the TVA French-language debate. But on Monday, they’ll be joined by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May as well as People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, and the debate will be entirely in English.
With just two weeks to go until election day, the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson sat down with the election strategy panel to discuss what strategies will be shaping how the frontrunners approach the debate.
“There really is no such thing as a knockout punch anymore, and I think if you go in too hard looking for that knockout punch, you run the risk of overreaching and having it backfiring on you,” said NDP strategist Anne McGrath.
“So I think what’s important for the leaders is they have to be calm, they have to be present, they have to be well-rested, they have to know the files and they have to know the particular points that they need to make in order to differentiate themselves from the other leaders.”
She said when it comes to Singh specifically, his challenge will be convincing viewers that his party remains a real option.
The NDP has struggled in the polls under Singh’s leadership and McGrath said reaching out to on-the-fence voters will be a key task.
“What’s important there is that we don’t allow the Liberals and the Conservatives — Mr. Scheer and Mr. Trudeau — to try to turn this into a two-person race, and to acknowledge that there are other options,” she said.
Richard Mahoney, a Liberal strategist, echoed McGrath in noting leaders rarely achieve any kind of knockout punch in contemporary debates, and that in his experience, hunting for one can do more harm than good.
He pointed to one campaign debate he was part of in which he said a candidate’s tone ultimately seemed to be a bigger factor in turning off voters.
“They didn’t like what they were seeing, they found it too harsh, they thought she interrupted too much,” he said of the unspecified debate, citing voter reaction.
“The whole package of what they saw, in a sense, they didn’t like. Was it a knockout punch? No. Was it a turning point in the election campaign? Absolutely.”
Mahoney didn’t specify what he thinks Trudeau will be focusing on but said he expects the Liberal leader could surprise those who write him off.
“The Conservatives have made a habit of underestimating Mr. Trudeau and his abilities,” he said.
Conservative strategist Fred Delorey suggested the French-language debate provided a preview of what viewers can expect from the English one.
The TVA debate saw Trudeau, Singh and Blanchet largely focusing their attacks on Scheer rather than each other.
“There’s no question he was the target and I’m sure he’ll be the target again on Monday,” Delorey said, pointing to Scheer’s focus on affordability and cost of living during the campaign so far.
“The other leaders, I think, understand that that message is resonating and they need to go after him, and I suspect they’re going to do that.”
The two-hour English-language debate takes place on Monday and will cover five topics: affordability and economic insecurity; environment and energy; Indigenous issues; national and global leadership; and polarization, human rights and immigration.