Leaders’ debates usually don’t move the needle much — but this election could buck that trend

The leaders of Canada’s main political parties are converging near Ottawa this week to face off in what could be an unusually pivotal pair of debates.

“I think this is probably one election where the debate really does matter,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, a political strategist with the public affairs firm State.

“We’re in a unique circumstance, where it’s a tie game by all measures and accounts, and a debate may be the deciding factor.”

The Liberals and Conservatives are locked in a virtual dead heat in national polls — CBC’s Poll Tracker has the Conservatives with a slight edge in overall support, but slightly favours the Liberals to win more seats — which has normally skeptical observers saying this week’s debates could in fact alter the course of the election.

“When the leaders know how close it is, and they know that voters are still making up their minds, I think each debate is a live wire,” said Lori Turnbull, director of School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University

The five invited leaders will first meet at 8 p.m. tonight for a French-language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

The leaders will meet again at the same location on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET to debate in English.

The invited leaders are:

  • Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau
  • Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole
  • NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh
  • Green Party Leader Annamie Paul
  • Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet

The participants were determined by the The Leaders’ Debates Commission, a non-partisan and independent organization responsible for organizing federal leaders’ debates.

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier was not invited by the commission because it determined his party did not have the required national support of at least four per cent, five days after the date of the election call.

CBC’s Poll Tracker now has the PPC at 4.8 per cent support in national polls, higher than the Greens, who are at 3.4 per cent.

Trudeau vs. O’Toole

Turnbull said she will be most closely watching the interactions between Trudeau and O’Toole, who at the moment appear to be the only two leaders with a viable shot at becoming prime minister.

The Conservatives have opened up a narrow but consistent lead over the Liberals, according to recent polls, but the margin appears to be shrinking.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole are expected to receive the most attention from other leaders, and field the most attacks, during the debates. (CBC, Erin O’Toole/Creative Commons)

That’s in part because Trudeau has had recent success in chipping away at O’Toole’s credibility and trustworthiness on emerging wedge issues, Turnbull said.

“I think there have been a lot of attempts to create awareness, create fear even, around what Erin O’Toole might do with private health care, what Erin O’Toole might do with vaccines, where he is on gun control,” Turnbull told CBC News.

She expects Trudeau to continue along that line of attack during the debates.

O’Toole, meanwhile, will likely try to fend off attacks on wedge issues and solidify his position as an alternative to voters disillusioned with Trudeau.

“Is [O’Toole] still coming across as a choice for progressive voters, or is Trudeau able to push him to the other side of that line,” Turnbull said.

Can the others can make an impression?

While the stakes might seem lower for Singh, Blanchet and Paul, experts say each of them is facing pressure to deliver, especially during what will be the only English debate of the campaign.

A poor result on Sept. 20 could have Singh facing questions about his future as NDP leader, said Daniel Béland, a political science professor and the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

He said the party needs to make some gains in Quebec, where NDP support cratered during Singh’s first election as party leader in 2019.

Blanchet is also facing some self-imposed pressure to deliver an improvement on the Bloc’s 2019 resurgence. Blanchet has said he wants to win at least 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in Parliament.

“They need also to make their case that a minority parliament is what is best for Canada,” Béland said of Singh and Blanchet.

Political strategist Jaskaran Sandhu said the tight polls and short time remaining until election day could make this week’s debates more important than in a typical campaign. (Zoom)

Perhaps no leader has experienced a more tumultuous few months than Paul, who entered the election contending with public discord within the Green Party and the defection of a former Green MP to the Liberals.

Sandhu said Paul could claw back a bit of momentum by establishing herself as a voice of authority on climate change during the debates.

What can you really learn?

While leaders’ debates often make for dramatic television, they can sometimes lack substance and actual policy discussions, Sandhu added.

That could be even more evident in this election, in which the leaders will meet for only one English debate. The predetermined topics do not include foreign affairs, which means the leaders may not discuss Canada’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan or relations with China, among other topics.

The leaders will debate foreign policy in the French debate. The French debate, conversely, does not have a topic on “leadership and accountability.”

“If you’re someone who’s engaging with the election for the first time, post-Labour Day, the debate is not necessarily going to answer every question for you,” Sandhu said. “Elections are a terrible time to actually talk policy.”

He suggested that voters instead examine party platforms, rather than making their choice based on the debate itself.

Read more at CBC.ca