A night of barbs, snipes and yes, policy

Politics Insider for Sept. 13: Highlights from the #FirstDebate, how Scheer, Singh and May performed, and more

Welcome to a special post-debate edition of the Maclean’s Politics Insider.

They came, they answered difficult questions about their positions and policies, and by the end of the night Canadians got a clearer picture of the leaders who are vying for their vote in this election. Of course the elephant-sized asterisk to that sentence is Justin Trudeau, who declined an invitation from Maclean’s and Citytv to take part in this year’s debate. His podium was there should he change his mind, but the night went ahead “with 25 per cent fewer leaders,” as moderator and Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells quipped. (Elizabeth May even shook hands with the invisible prime minister.) “Why have a debate without him?” Wells asked. “Because in Canada we elect Parliaments, not presidents. Every party can influence the next four years and every party has a case to make and to defend. And in Canada the right to ask questions is never bestowed by some authority. It belongs to everybody.”

But while Trudeau appeared prominently in the leaders’ answers throughout the night, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and May repeatedly clashed with each other on the debate’s four main topics: the economy, Indigenous issues, energy and the environment, and foreign affairs.

First things first, if you missed last night’s debate, you can catch up by watching a full reply here. Alternatively you can check out these 9 must-see moments clipped from the debate. Also don’t miss these behind-the-scenes photos.

Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes sets the stage for our analysis by looking at how well each leader injected their preferred themes into the night:

One way to try to make sense of tonight’s federal leader’s debate is to start at the end. All three of the combatants got a chance to give brief closing remarks—their easiest chance all night to make the points they wanted viewers to remember, unconstrained by having to at least feign at answering moderator Paul Wells’s questions, and undistracted by sniping from their rivals.

So the way they summed up is the best guide to what they must have strategized at the outset about focusing on through the course of the debate. (Maclean’s)

Now onto analysis of each leader.

Scheer came under attack constantly by Singh and May, and the effect did help Scheer somewhat in his goal of looking prime ministerial, but only to a point, writes Jason Markusoff:

Trudeau’s absence was something Scheer tried to exploit, but the effect of the incumbent punching bag being a couple of time zones away was to turn the Tory leader into the substitute punching bag for the evening. One might have expected Singh and May to focus on one another, since they’re duelling for votes like never before. One would be wrong. The Green and NDP leaders both wanted to show their bases how great they were at battering conservatives—painting Scheer as a Trump puppet and an anti-immigrant demagogue while accusing him (without much evidence) of wanting to slash taxes for the rich. Conservative wisdom coming into the debate held that their leader shouldn’t bother mixing it up with the two rivals competing for third place. But Scheer didn’t hesitate in many cases to shoot back, leaning in on occasion to debunk remarks that weren’t even about him.

He lacked a retort when Singh said he was “appalled” that Scheer wouldn’t commit to appealing the recent court ruling on compensation for First Nations harmed by the child-welfare system. Or when May and Singh both poked him on his failure to rebuke Donald Trump for cruel policies like separating immigrant children from their families. (Maclean’s)

It’s no secret that Singh and the NDP haven’t had a great time of it lately, with the party’s finances in a sorry state and polls showing the NDP at risk of losing many of the seats it held going into the election. So Singh couldn’t afford to turn in a weak performance, writes Shannon Proudfoot, and he didn’t:

Jagmeet Singh should get angry more. Indignant. Exasperated. Outraged. Pissed.

Singh went into the Maclean’s/Citytv National Leaders Debate on Thursday night with low expectations hovering around him, but he exceeded them all by a wide margin.

He’s struggled to find his feet on the national political stage since winning the NDP leadership in 2017, and even since the February by-election in Burnaby, B.C. that gave him a seat in the House of Commons at long last. His party’s fundraising has been anemic, two weeks before the federal election campaign kicked off they lacked confirmed candidates in nearly half the ridings across the country, and a narrative had taken hold that the party itself—and specifically its leader—was chum in the electoral waters. (Maclean’s)

May came into the debate with her own troubles, with gaffes on issues like the abortion debate and Quebec separatism grabbing headlines at a time when her party seemed to be making big gains. The debate was an opportunity for May to reestablish that a Green vote is a credible alternative, writes Anne Kingston, and she did:

When May entered that studio, after faux-shaking Trudeau’s hand, she needed to reestablish that a Green vote was a credible alternative to both the Liberals and the NDP. And she ably outlined the party’s comprehensive if ambitious platform, one that includes a guaranteed livable wage, national pharmacare, free tuition, affordable housing, and the elimination of poverty. Her second task was to convey a sense of urgency that underlines the Green platform — and her own political career. And that’s more difficult to accomplish within the strictures of a formal debate.

May proved herself  in command of facts and costing details, in one instance taking on Singh’s promise that the NDP provide dental care to Canadians. The Greens had costed it out, May said, and found the expense was $30-billion —so they redrafted their platform to provide it only to low-income Canadians.  She also took Singh on over the NDP’s support of  LNG pipeline in B.C. (Maclean’s)

Stephen Maher also came away from the debate impressed by May:

I thought May won the night, though, because she is a more experienced, better debater, with a surer grasp of policy minutiae than her opponents, which makes her hard to attack. She found ways to dominate the discussion, holding the floor while the other two listened, and at times seemed to almost be trying to moderate the event herself.

She is quirky, though. She mimed shaking hands with an absent Trudeau at the start of the night, and argued strenuously that SNC-Lavalin should be forced to build infrastructure on first nations to pay for its alleged sins, which, legally speaking, seems problematic, to put it mildly.

But she rebuffed Singh forcefully when he called her proposal “ludicrous,” and seemed to win the exchange although Singh is right. (Maclean’s)

The Maclean’s/Citytv debate wasn’t the only political face-off of the night. South of the border American Democrats were watching candidates for that party’s leadership duke it out on stage. Jaime J. Weinman watched both debates to see how they compared:

In a large hall with an audience, the Democrats performed like theatre people: big, broad, and loud. But they also seemed more nervous and uncertain, even if they were reciting talking points they’d practiced in advance. If you want to compare the debates to comedy shows, then the U.S. debate was like Saturday Night Live while the Canadian debate, appropriately enough, was more like SCTV. (Maclean’s)

Aside from the four main themes, Wells also pushed the leaders to explain their positions on Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans provincial civil servants from wearing religious symbols. And while they repeated what they’ve said in the past about being disappointed by Premier Francois Legault’s legislation, they again made it clear none will challenge him directly, writes Sadiya Ansari. (Maclean’s)

That’s it for now. But check back at throughout the day for more coverage and analysis.