Last night's debate: Trudeau gets caught up, O'Toole has his moments and Singh misses the mark

Politics Insider for Sept. 10, 2021: All the must-see moments and analysis you need after watching (or not watching) last night's English-language showdown

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Jason Markusoff, of Maclean’s, has the rundown you need on Thursday night’s English language debate, which did not go well for the prime minister.

Time and again, the Liberal leader was attacked on his government’s record and tried to swing back aggressively. If it wasn’t Jagmeet Singh hitting him on taking Indigenous kids to court, it was Erin O’Toole criticizing his ability to meet climate change targets—to which Trudeau replied that 2030 remains nine years away, in one of multiple moments in which he flashed visible irritation, or got unusually combative. At the outset of this campaign, it seemed Trudeau might coast to victory on the strength of his record. But some of the Liberals’ shortcomings look glaring if cannily framed, and his opponents did that on Thursday.

Markusoff writes that the moderation “squeezed most of the light out of this affair.”

Lead moderator Shachi Kurl, a pollster and former journalist, rapidly cut off many attempts to pivot from one topic to the next, and hawkishly watched the clock to ensure all of the myriad elements of the program had their slotted times. It led to a moment that some observers believe will raise anger in Quebec, and potentially draw votes to the Bloc: Kurl wound up arguing with Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc Québecois leader, who claimed he’d been shorted when it came to timing. This came after she’d begun the debate with a tense exchange with Blanchet over Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 banning religious symbols from public workplaces. At another point, Kurl offered Trudeau an absurdly paltry five seconds to respond to various critiques of his record. Some past debates have gone wildly off topic or off-kilter and would have benefited from a moderator with a tighter leash. Kurl’s leash often seemed like a choke chain, stifling many exchanges from blossoming into actual, you know, debates.

Also in Maclean’s:

Shannon Proudfoot finds Trudeau still struggling to explain why we are all engaged in this exercise.

The greater energy he’s displayed over the last week, as his campaign finally seemed to get its shoes on, was turned up too high and of the wrong kind to be useful to him on Thursday. Of course, as the incumbent he went in with more baggage and more soft underbelly exposed than the other party leaders. But the very first question he had faced—amid a barrage of similarly pointed questions to each of the leaders in succession—centred on the core question hovering over the entire proceedings: why are any of us here right now?

Your correspondent is inclined to think that O’Toole looks likelier to be prime minister after he did well, Trudeau did not, and the moderator picked a fight with Blanchet.

The election isn’t over, but it almost is. Advance voting begins today. Millions may vote by the mail. Trudeau will surely try to pivot before long to making pleas to soft New Democrats, but it will get harder to make that work as more votes go into boxes. And the Blanchet story—which looks set to take off in Quebec today—could put the Liberals on the defensive in the territory they desperately need if they are to stave off a Tory challenge.

Justin Ling thinks Jagmeet Singh did a good job of roasting Trudeau but a poor job at selling himself as a PM-in-waiting

But when it came to offering voters specifics of how he would govern, or even a compelling emotional reason why he’s better suited to lead than the others, Singh largely repeated the script he’s been reading for the whole campaign. Would he scrap the Trans Mountain pipeline upon being elected? Who knows. Where would his investments go to get CO2 emissions down by 50 per cent? Couldn’t say. How would he protect Indigenous ancestral rights to logging, fishing and hunting? No idea. Voters at home would certainly come away from Thursday’s debate knowing that Singh wants to “make the rich pay their fair share,” as if that were ever in doubt. But that often sounded like the deepest policy proposal he had under his belt.

Quebec plot twist: A dispute between the moderator and Blanchet made headlines in Quebec on Thursday night, seeming to presage a vote-moving phase of the campaign in that province.Le Devoir led with the dispute (translation), as did La Presse (translation).

 The only debate in English by the leaders of the electoral campaign turned into a trial of the laws adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec on the secularism of the State and the protection of the French language. During an evening when cacophony also reigned supreme, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet was forced to defend Legault government policies in his second language while the other leaders, with the exception of the Party leader green, remained silent. Raising the curtain of the debate, Mr. Blanchet received a frontal affront. The affront did not come from one of his opponents, but from the moderator of the debate, Shachi Kurl, who launched the exercise by repeatedly asking him how he could support “discriminatory” legislation, by speaking of Bill 21 and Bill 96.

Francophone Quebecers appear to be affronted by the conflict, which may rattle an until-now fairly stable campaign in that province, and raise questions about the conduct of the debate.

Aside from that, the consensus seems to be that Trudeau struggled.

In the Star, Susan Delacourt concludes that Trudeau must be asking himself why he called the election.

Every one of the leaders walked into these debates with a lot to save — even political careers — but no one as much as the Conservative and Liberal leaders. O’Toole needed to preserve the fragile momentum he’s accumulated to date in this election. In effectively batting away Trudeau’s standard anti-Conservative attacks, he may have succeeded. Trudeau, meanwhile, needs to save his Liberals from defeat in the election he unleashed on the country. This pile-on won’t have helped.

In the Globe, John Ibbitson comes to a similar conclusion.

On Thursday night, as the minutes ticked away, Mr. Trudeau failed to launch his attack, because he so seldom had an opening.

Where we stand: As the leaders gathered for the debate, Maclean’s polling wizard Philippe J. Fournier concluded that the race is tightening: CPC 34 (0), LPC 32 (-1), NDP 20 (+4), BQ 6 (-2), PCP 4 (+2), GPC 3 (-4). Projected seat count: LPC 142 (-15), CPC 134 (+13), NDP 34 (+10), BQ 26 (-6), GPC 2 (-1). Bracketed numbers show changes since 2019 election. Fournier wonders if the Conservatives have room to grow.

Before dissolution, I had hypothesized that the CPC was stuck in a “high-floor, low-ceiling” scenario with Canadian voters. The CPC surge early in the campaign was testament to Erin O’Toole’s effectiveness at getting himself better known to Canadian voters, and several early polls in this campaign showed O’Toole’s personal numbers rising days prior (see this Abacus Data poll from Aug. 20). However, while some would suggest the Conservatives may have “peaked too soon” in this campaign, it is plausible that they simply peaked, and that the 34 to 35 per cent mark represents the party’s new ceiling.

Enter Legault: On Thursday, after the second of two French language debates, Francois Legault pronounced himself concerned with the centralizing tendencies of the Liberal, NDP and Green platforms and said nationalists should hope for a Conservative minority, La Journal de Montreal reports (translation).  “I am a nationalist. I want Quebec to be more autonomous, to have more power, and there are three parties, the PLC, the NDP and the Green Party, which want to give us less autonomy. I find it dangerous.”

Rescue operation: Writing in the GazetteTasha Kheiriddin theorizes that Legault may have felt the need to come to O’Toole’s rescue after a flat debate performance.

Quebec commentators were not impressed with O’Toole, including columnist Chantal Hebert, who quipped that “On his last big opportunity to establish a stronger connection with Quebec voters and to impress them, (O’Toole) missed the mark.” So in rode Legault to the rescue. If his endorsement turns the tide for O’Toole, it could put the Tories over the top — and put the new government firmly in Legault’s debt.

A lament: Speaking of debates, the reviews of Wednesday night’s French language debate are mixed. In Maclean’s, Paul Wells laments that the debate wasn’t what it could have been even though good people were doing their best.

For starters, the participating news organizations want maximum on-screen time for their journalists. Every organization that participated in the consortium sent a prominent colleague. None preferred to sit the night out, for the sake of simplicity and clarity. That’s how you get five people in moderator/interrogator roles. And if La Presse’s Paul Journet wasn’t all that interested in pressing leaders on their non-answers to questions from Hélène Buzzetti of the newspaper syndicate Les Coops de l’Info … well, that brings us to the parties’ interest. The parties want minimum on-screen time for their leaders. Or at least, they want the smallest amount of risk for every second of screen time. How much time did Erin O’Toole want to spend explaining that the only source of cost reduction in his platform is the abolition of Liberal day-care plans, and that in every other way his party has become as spendy as Trudeau’s? Zero.

In La PresseMichel C. Auger, writes that the debate was over before it began, because the Conservative platform calls for the elimination of child-care deals, a “question (O’Toole) will have to explain himself on for the remainder of the campaign.” (Translation)

PPC gravel link: The People’s Party of Canada removed the Elgin Middlesex London riding association president — Shane Marshall — after it was alleged that he is threw gravel at Justin Trudeau at a rally in London on Monday, CBC reports.

Marshall is known in anti-lockdown and white-supremacist circles, said Peter Smith, of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “This is a person who expresses, through memes and videos as well as his appearances at multiple protests dressed in a balaclava waving a flag from Canada’s colonial past, an explicitly white nationalist view.” Police are investigating.

Far right haters: The hate we are seeing in this campaign is alarming, writes Fatima Sayed in Maclean’s, pointing out the links between white supremacy and the anti-vax movement.

Hate, too, is a virus and it grows rapidly if left unaddressed. And it’s been left unaddressed in Canada for far too long. There is a  link between the anti-vaxx movement and far-right groups that we need to talk about. (Note: the movement is separate from vaccine-hesitant people who have legitimate concerns.) An upcoming study by Amarnath Amarasingam, Stephanie Carvin and Kurt Philips for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue documents the connections, finding that “anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination movements in Canada are predominantly propagated by the far-right. Some of the most vocal critics of lockdown measures and vaccines are leaders of far-right groups or political parties, including People Party of Canada (PPC) leader Maxime Bernier.

BTW: If this newsletter hasn’t slaked your thirst for debate and election commentary, join Maclean’s all stars at 12:30 p.m. for a Twitter Space discussion: https://twitter.com/i/spaces/1ynKOBlBQLrxR?s=20

— Stephen Maher