Towards the end of last night’s election debate, Elizabeth May bluntly told Andrew Scheer he won’t be prime minister after Oct. 21. The Green leader predicted Justin Trudeau will either return with a minority government or a majority.
That’s the reason, she continued, that Canadians should cast their votes with the Greens, because “voting for Green MPs is your very best guarantee you don’t get the government you least want.”
It was vintage May, coming in the midst of a diatribe about how lousy a job the Liberals have done of keeping their commitments on climate change. “Please God,” she blurted, “don’t get a majority this time around because you won’t keep your promises.” It also signalled, whether deliberately or not, that left-wing voters who aren’t enthused about a second Trudeau term would be best to support New Democrats, as May had just pledged her troth unequivocally to Trudeau.
It was also a moment worth noting because it underlined a theme that became clear through two hours of argument among six party leaders. There was nary a word about foreign policy, defence, veterans, the possible onset of a recession, or the growing resentment in Alberta at being treated as a national punching bag by climate zealots, but plenty of talk about who would, or should, be prime minister.
It won’t be May. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh won’t be prime minister, either. Maxime Bernier may not even win his own riding. And Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet noted dryly that the odds of a separatist running the country are remote, asserting that “I want to fight for Quebecers and Quebecers only.” Glad we cleared that one up.
That left Trudeau and Andrew Scheer as the only people on stage with a reasonable hope of success. Which made one wonder why viewers were subjected to lengthy exhortations from the leaders of parties that may, at best, emerge from the campaign with a small clump of seats off somewhere to one side of the House of Commons.
OK, it’s a democracy, and that’s the way we do things. Everyone gets their say. We got to listen to Blanchet complain endlessly about how poor, unappreciated Quebec is mistreated by federal leaders who won’t recognize its inalienable right to do whatever it wants, especially once the annual $13 billion in equalization lands in its bank. Perhaps the most pointed look of disgust was the one Blanchet bore when Trudeau ignored his demand to pledge never, ever to build a pipeline across Quebec.
May predictably denounced everyone as doing too little about climate change. Singh confirmed suspicions he’s the least stilted of the leaders, a quality that might have left him in a better position had he managed to deploy it earlier.
But only Scheer or Trudeau is likely to win, and the most pertinent moments were the few in which they were allowed to confront one another directly. Scheer wasted no time in abandoning decorum, using his opening words to raise Trudeau’s blackface photos, his record of ethics violations and his enthusiasm for costumes. Trudeau, he said, “only pretends to stand up for Canada.”
“He’s very good at pretending things. The fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”
Singh had much to say along the same line. “Why do you keep letting down the people who voted for you?” he demanded.
“You say a lot of nice things … but you said a lot of these nice things in 2015,” Singh noted. “What’s it going to take to get you to follow through on your commitments, because your words aren’t enough any more.”
Trudeau appeared unfazed by the accusations. He knew his lines and he delivered them well. He continued to defend his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, insisting it’s his responsibility “to stand up for jobs.” He criticized the other leaders for refusing to intervene in court challenges of Quebec’s Bill 21 on state secularism, suggesting that, while the Liberals have similarly rejected pleas, they might change their mind later on. He promised a Liberal government would compensate Indigenous children taken from their homes under the on-reserve child welfare system, even though it is currently appealing a human rights tribunal order to do so. And he insisted repeatedly that his party has the only climate plan with a practical chance of reducing emissions.
It seems doubtful that he lost any ground, but, again, it left dangling the reality that voters have only two real choices of potential governments, a Liberal or a Conservative. Opting for the Greens or NDP will only help put Trudeau back in power, as they’re likely to agree to prop up Liberals over Conservatives.
It was Scheer’s task to make the choice clear, shooting holes in the Liberal record while presenting a figure poised and professional enough to offer a convincing alternative. He made no major mistakes, though even when attacking he projects a coolness that can compare poorly with Trudeau’s more emotive performances.
He maintained the pragmatism of Conservative plans over the Liberal treasure box of new promises with dubious price tags attached. He noted that dozens of Indigenous communities support pipeline projects “because they know that is the key to prosperity.”
“We have to get to a place in this country where things can get built again,” he insisted. He also got in a decent zinger, retorting after yet another reference by Trudeau to Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “You seem to be oddly obsessed with provincial politics. There is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership and if you’re so focused on provincial politics go and run for the leadership of that province.”
Scheer has to hope enough Canadians are disappointed in Trudeau, and those disappointments run deep enough, to convince them to take a chance on the alternative. He may not have driven away any support last night, but he likely has more work to do if he hopes to prove Elizabeth May wrong.