In First Election Debate, No Knockout Blows or Damaging Gaffes

September 3, 2021 Updated: September 3, 2021


Election debates can make or break a campaign. An election debate provides voters with their first chance in a campaign to see party leaders directly facing off against each other on issues. While a debate alone rarely moves the electoral needle much, there are cases where a knock-out punch is scored against a rival. There are even other cases where a politician shoots themselves in the foot. Politicians are motivated to score points, but cagey as well.

In the 1984 debates, Brian Mulroney famously cornered John Turner with his “You had an option, sir!” statement over patronage appointments. It was considered a turning point in the campaign.

More recently, in the Alberta 2015 campaign debate, Premier Jim Prentice mortified voters when he turned on the diminutive NDP leader Rachel Notley with the condescending statement: “I know that math is difficult.” It was criticized as bullying and insulting to women. Those six words deflated the Progressive Conservative campaign and contributed to the NDP upset victory.

In the first debate of this electoral campaign, there were no knock-out blows scored nor any damaging errors. The leaders were all composed and clearly well-rehearsed. The moderating was impressive, and the event went smoothly. We have seen so many debate models that degenerated into shouting matches. In TVA’s “Face-a-Face” debate, was nice to see order maintained while candidates could still directly engage each other.

Being a French-language debate, it provided a test for leaders outside Quebec to demonstrate their ability (or lack thereof) to speak French. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had already demonstrated French proficiency in the 2019 election. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole proved himself to be comfortable and fluid in French during the debate. This is a critical point, as Quebec voters are language-sensitive and are unlikely to embrace party leaders who can’t speak French well.

The incumbent Prime Minister is usually targeted in debates as opposition leaders pile on in hopes of chipping away support. The TVA debate was no exception, though the leaders were all relatively civil. Justin Trudeau maintained his composure well throughout the barrage, but he did have a hard time justifying why he called an early election and the other leaders pounced on this. While Trudeau couldn’t express a clear answer to the question, he maintained his stance and got through that round of questioning relatively unscathed.

Trudeau scored some points on O’Toole by repeatedly demanding to know if O’Toole supports private provision of health care. It is a bit of a disingenuous attack considering that Canada already has a lot of private delivery options in health care. Our universal health-care system is a political sacred cow, however, and O’Toole’s refusal to directly answer that question with a negative may frighten some people. It was a continuation on the theme of the video tweeted out by Chrystia Freeland that had been doctored to make it appear O’Toole was looking to degrade the universality of the health system. That video backfired on the Liberals as it was such dirty play. Continuing to attack O’Toole on the issue may not work out as well as the Liberals are hoping.

Singh stayed tight to the NDP script of constantly decrying the “ultra-rich” and playing the politics of envy. He is pursuing an opposition role, and really only needs to remain solid rather than trying to score points.

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet was personable and confident in the debate. He could stick to his Quebec-first theme and let the other leaders fight over other policy issues. Blanchet worked to corner other leaders into committing to bringing a planned pharmaceutical facility to Quebec rather than Ontario. No leaders would commit, and he created a new wedge. On the controversial Quebec Bill-21 that banned the wearing of religious symbols for those working in the public service, Blanchet was able to put other leaders on the spot. The bill is popular in Quebec but condemned in the rest of Canada. Leaders aside from Blanchet taking sides on the bill are sure to lose support in one region or another.

All in all it was a solid debate performance, and because of that nobody gained or lost any significant ground in the campaign. Some challenging issues were debated, and people came away at least a bit better informed on where the party leaders stood.

The main event will be the English debate on Sept. 9. There is one more French debate as well, but it will be that final one held less than two weeks before voting day where we will truly see the leaders put out their best efforts, whether in confidence or in desperation, as the campaign nears its end.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Cory Morgan
Cory Morgan is a columnist and business owner based in Calgary, Alberta.