Another debate, another chance for the main party leaders to go mano a mano before voters go to the polls, including the advance polls that open this weekend. It was also the leaders’ last chance in the federal election to be on the same stage and directly distinguish themselves from their rivals.
But it wasn’t just the leaders that voters could judge: the debates themselves — there have been four — were starkly different as well. Here are my observations, a.k.a. 10 Things I Learned Watching the French Language Leaders’ Debate.
1. The French are much better at producing debates. Just as the TVA debate was an improvement on the Maclean’s debate, the French-language debate put on by the Canadian Debate Production Partnership was far more watchable than its English counterpart. There was less screaming and shouting — and when it did break out in the second hour, moderator Patrice Roy mercilessly kept to time and cut off the debaters. Restricting debates to sets of three made sense and allowed the audience to actually hear the leaders. It also discouraged People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier from steamrollering his rivals as he did in the opening segment of the English debate.
2. Bernier is 100 times better in French than English. He took Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to task on the economy, hit back at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, didn’t lose his cool and was lucid and well spoken. He was also the only politician who, in his words, didn’t promise to buy votes with Canadians’ money, even telling a little old widow standing in front of him that he wouldn’t boost her pension until he had balanced the budget. As Andrew Coyne tweeted, he’d be great if he hadn’t drunk the crazy juice on the environment.
3. Elizabeth May is equally tiresome in both languages. In case you hadn’t heard, there is a CLIMATE EMERGENCY! The Chicken Little act works for Greta Thunberg, who is all of 16 years old. But it sounds grating coming from the Green Party leader, a 65-year-old politician who’s been peddling it for two decades. I can recall listening to May at a policy conference in 2007 when we had also, apparently, reached the point of no return. Her world does sound kind of nice, though, with high-speed trains from Edmonton to Calgary, no fossil fuels and money for everyone. Oh, and did you know her plan is called “Mission: Possible”? Kumbaya.
4. Justin Trudeau looked tired and defensive. He was very shouty, mostly when confronted by Scheer but also in response to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and even when facing off against May on immigration. He managed to invoke Ontario Premier Doug Ford 60 seconds into the debate, and on a few occasions after that, even in front of a Quebec audience, which gives some indication of where the Liberal machine will be focusing its efforts in the coming days (Hint: it starts with 905).
5. Singh gets funnier every debate. Where has this guy been for the last two years? He delivered the best lines of the night: they’re Mr. Pipeline, I’m Jagmeet Singh! Trudeau flashes to the left, then turns right when elected. You are prime minister for your little friends. OK, the jokes were funnier in French. But had Singh exuded this kind of confidence even 30 days ago, this would have been a very different election.
6. Yves-François Blanchet was kind of boring. Solid, but still boring. The Bloc Québécois leader did have a couple of funny lines: the high-speed train between Toronto and Quebec is a Sasquatch that everyone says exists but we never see. He is so Quebec-first that he would still deal with China so pork producers don’t get hurt (Saudi Arabia is a different story). His stock is rising in Quebec, which means he has to make no mistakes going forward and might explain his more reserved demeanour.
7. Scheer was better than his first French debate. But the Conservative leader was not as good in French on Thursday as he was in the English debate on Monday. He wasn’t great, he wasn’t bad; he was about as exciting as Blanchet but he smiled more. He saved what vitriol he did expend for Trudeau, evidently trying to emphasize that this is a fight between him and the Liberal leader for PM — despite the fact that the Bloc is polling higher than the Conservatives in Quebec.
8. Quebec’s Bill 21 sparks interesting divisions… On Quebec’s Bill 21, Trudeau was the only leader to don the Captain Canada mantle and challenge the decision while all other leaders say they would not intervene to challenge the decision. Singh clarified his earlier position that he would only intervene when the feds would have no choice but to do so — i.e. at the Supreme Court level. The other leaders all concurred that it’s Quebec’s decision to make — and tried to change the subject.
9. … And so does SNC-Lavalin. On the second issue with Quebec overtones, SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau and Blanchet made common cause. They were the only leaders who would like to see an agreement for the company that allows it to pay reparations and not face criminal charges — and, according to them, thereby preserve jobs in Quebec. Strange bedfellows, but hey, in this election, nothing surprises anymore.
10. Again, this debate was light-years better than the English debate. Roy and the journalists asked very specific questions on some important but hitherto ignored issues: data protection, protections for linguistic minorities outside Quebec, foreign policy with China. The quality of the questions was deeper and broader than in the English debate.
So that’s it, Canada — the debates are done, and voters will now repair to their Thanksgiving dinner tables to talk over their choices. Or, perhaps, just to give thanks that this election is almost over.
It’s been messy, nasty and intensely personal. And on Oct. 21, we’ll see what harvest Canada reaps.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.