Before picking winners and losers in last night’s French-language debate, we should first look at the context in which the five leaders find themselves at this point in the campaign.
Let’s go from stage left to right. Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, whose return to politics after the Bloc’s routing in 2011 constitutes perhaps the biggest unforced error in this campaign, still trails the NDP and Tom Mulcair in the minds (if not, perhaps, the hearts) of most Quebecers.
Stephen Harper, who gave up on winning over Quebec when the province largely spurned his advances in 2008, is seemingly satisfied with the small rump of Quebec City-area seats.
With the NDP’s power base in Quebec, Mulcair is the leader with the least to gain and the most to lose in a debate whose focus is seen almost entirely through a Quebec-only lens.
So effective in the Maclean’s debate six weeks ago, Elizabeth May’s feel-good story will have little electoral consequence in French Canada.
Finally, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau came into the debate knowing full well that his party’s Ontario-first strategy—that is to say, win Ontario first and foremost—nevertheless depends on snagging a not-insignificant number of Quebec seats to form a government.
Each leader had different goals in the debate, and determining the winner is a game of elimination. In order for Duceppe to have any hope in Hades of winning, he needed to attack Mulcair. Unfortunately for him, the debate didn’t much allow for this. On numerous occasions—on oil sands production, environmental protection, infrastructure investment, offshore tax shelters—he found himself violently in agreement with Mulcair. Crucially, Duceppe also agrees with Mulcair on the mechanics of Quebec secession. Both he and Mulcair agree on the “50 per cent plus one” formula, should the hoary question ever come to a vote again. “A separate Quebec won’t have a Senate or a monarchy,” he said. Okay, but in the real world Duceppe had to radically differentiate himself from Mulcair. He didn’t.
As in previous debates, Harper was again the picture of calm—a smiling emitter of talking points. His heavily accented French is supremely good enough, and any Quebecer inclined to vote Conservative wouldn’t likely find any reason in Harper’s delivery to think otherwise. This is exactly what Harper needed to do.
Elizabeth May was an afterthought to all those around her. No one ever bothered to directly engage her. Even Mulcair, for whom the Greens are a credible threat on the West Coast, barely acknowledged her presence.
Trudeau was good. Just good. His scripted barbs—Mulcair “wants to raise taxes on Rona and Jean Coutu”—and the harping on the middle class were largely a translation of his English debate performances, with a soupçon of Quebec’s inevitable identity politics thrown in. “Can we talk about something other than identity and sovereignty, real issues like the economy?” he said at one point. Like Duceppe, though, he was often in agreement with Mulcair: Harper’s awful, and has to go.
This leaves Mulcair. He came out of the debate largely unscathed, in that even his most absurd election promises (the NDP’s Senate abolition platform, for example) remained the vote-harvesting mirages they were intended to be. Trudeau’s (correct) assertion that Mulcair was once a right-of-centre Liberal who praised Margaret Thatcher and bulk water sales in equal measure, largely got lost in the cross talk. “Stephen Harper is hiding the economy behind a niqab” was the zinger that best cut to Harper’s (and Duceppe’s) niqab electoral fig leaf. In the first debate, Mulcair was the personification of valium. The second he was shouty. Tonight he was a happy medium.
Given the NDP’s waning fortunes in Ontario, Mulcair can hardly afford to lose any seats in Quebec. Of the remaining four leaders on the podium, Trudeau seems to have the best chances of cutting into the NDP’s Quebec base. But no one shook Mulcair enough to damage him outright. For his opponents, that will have to come later.