The three men vying for Canada's top political office took the stage in Calgary Thursday night to go toe-to-toe on the most pressing issue facing the Canadian electorate: the economy. Once the smoke of political gamesmanship and rhetoric cleared, only one emerged as a leader with a new vision for Canada: Justin Trudeau.
For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here.
While it was at times hard to find the economic meat in this muddled sandwich of political finger-pointing and out-shouting, the Liberal Leader gave by far the most convincing case yet for his road map for the Canadian economy of the future.
First, though, he and his two counterparts, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, had to get their dreary, intelligence-insulting political games out of the way. All of the leaders were guilty, early and often, of ignoring the moderator's questions in order to pound away at their rehearsed talking points and misleading scare tactics. They all twisted the facts about the other parties' platforms in order to score points at the expense of their opponents.
Thank heavens for the second half of the debate, when the moderator engaged the leaders in a more free-form discussion and insisted they actually answer some direct questions. And this is when Mr. Trudeau seemed to warm up – both to the audience and to his policies.
For Mr. Trudeau, especially, the most important goal tonight was not so much to sell his economic plan, but to sell himself as the man who can actually execute it. Canadians seem to have come around surprisingly quickly to his bold, even risky proposal to run modest short-term deficits in order to invest big on infrastructure. But polls show that despite liking the plan, they don't have a lot of faith that Mr. Trudeau has the skill, smarts and experience to manage the economy.
Was he convincing? Not always. But he did better than his two opponents in explaining the rationale behind his policies. He presented himself as the only man of the three with something meaningful to offer. And he looked like he knew what he was talking about.
So did Mr. Harper. But the role he chose was to be the guy who has seen it all and done it all, and thus should be trusted to just keep on doing it. He seemed content to be the guy devoid of new ideas.
An election ago, Mr. Harper won a majority government on economic pledges that voters could sink their teeth into: He was going to cut taxes and balance the budget. Well, done and done. So what was the point? Um, to promise to keep the tax cuts and keep the budget balanced. If we imagined that these were means to an end, that once achieved there would be a grand plan cashing in the dividend from all that hard work, we were wrong. If Mr. Harper has anything more to offer beyond his reputation and his record, he wasn't eager to talk about it.
Mr. Mulcair's biggest contribution looks to be to increase the corporate taxes that Mr. Harper has cut. His best argument? Mr. Harper's tax cuts didn't save manufacturing jobs, big business should pay its "fair share" – and at any rate, it won't be so bad. We know there's a philosophy behind Mr. Mulcair's corporate tax policy. Did he explain it? Not adequately – not even when he was directly asked. Nor did he adequately explain the economic value of his national affordable childcare proposal, other than to assure us that it, too, can be done with a balanced budget.
Beyond the predictable and tedious three-way finger-wagging about balanced budgets and the parties' varying willingness and competence to achieve them, there was a disappointing lack of economic substance for a 90-minute debate that was entirely about the economy.
The three leaders had an opportunity to address the country's debt-bloated housing market, and the risk it poses to the country's economic stability. All three chose instead to deliver motherhood-and-apple-pie platitudes about having a secure roof over your head.
Trade? It didn't even come up until the final five minutes of the debate. For a trade-intensive economy like Canada's, the lack of discussion on the trade file was, frankly, mind-boggling.
The three leaders were their most animated and engaged in each other, by far, in discussing immigration policy. But the discussion about the economic role of immigration in Canada's future growth as its population ages was utterly lost in an argument about refugees and security issues.
Nevertheless, the three distinguished themselves from each other on the economy Thursday. Mr. Mulcair came off as less scary on the economy than the NDP is often painted to be. Mr. Harper defined himself as the safe choice on the path that, while not so great, also hasn't been so awful.
But whether you like it or not, only Mr. Trudeau offered voters a vision of something new.