There they stood: Six political party leaders sharing the stage with five debate moderators. It had the potential to be nothing but a food fight, a disaster of epic proportions.
Thankfully the Debate Commission didn’t put all of them on stage at the same time and moderators took turns putting questions to the leaders.
One at a time, they put questions to the leaders who stood with a full audience behind them and a few dozen voters facing them.
While Trudeau was mostly absent in the first 15 minutes, mostly allowing other leaders to attack each other, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did jump in to attack Trudeau early.
“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “You know, he’s very good at pretending things. He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”
Scheer said that Trudeau wears all kinds of masks on matters such as Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and his concern for middle-class Canadians.
Time and again, Scheer returned to his attack on Trudeau for firing Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous woman to serve as attorney general because she stood up to him over SNC-Lavalin.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who seemed the most relaxed and at ease of the leaders, also took Trudeau to task on Indigenous issues for mocking a protester asking for clean water by saying, “Thank you for your donation.”
“What kind of a leader does that?” Singh asked. “A phoney,” replied Scheer.
Scheer brought up a number of the problems that Trudeau has faced over the last year to ask why he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.
All the leaders got in their digs at Trudeau.
“You bought a pipeline,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said to Trudeau as the topic turned to the environment. Trudeau replied that a slogan does not equal a plan. As Trudeau and Scheer scrapped over carbon emissions, Singh got in his best line of the night.
“You do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny,” Singh said.
While Singh often got in some good lines, his party is still in third place in the polls and he has limited time to turn it around. That saw Singh appeal to voters attracted by Trudeau’s “nice words” but who want real action.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet stood on the stage to stand up for Quebec at every turn without speaking to the rest of the country.
People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier could have taken the debate as an opportunity to explain his policies in depth, which he did at times, but at other times got caught up in arguing with other leaders instead of selling his platform.
For his part, Trudeau attempted to stave off his main challenger by trying to link Scheer to former prime minister Stepehen Harper and Ontario’s Doug Ford.
“There is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership and if you are focussed on provincial politics go and run for the leadership of that party,” Scheer said as Trudeau invoked Ford towards the end of the debate.
It’s hard to say there was a clear winner but let’s be blunt, it wasn’t May, Blanchet or Bernier. None of them have any chance of becoming prime minister on Oct. 21 and Blanchet isn’t even vying for that title.
Singh may have seemed the most confident in putting forward his plans and proposals but he isn’t likely to get a chance to implement.
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Trudeau benefited from the leaders attacking each other instead of him, yet when they did turn to Trudeau, it was a common theme. He’s not the guy he claimed to be last election.
That could stick.
That leaves Scheer. Did he do enough to convince the remaining swing voters to come to his camp? Voters saw a Scheer they hadn’t seen before, one willing to come out swinging.
Scheer’s aggressive stance towards Trudeau may have been the fire in the belly that voters have been looking for.