A hard-charging Andrew Scheer accused Justin Trudeau of being unfit to govern, Monday, in a debate that saw the Liberal Leader under attack on every front.
The Conservative Leader accused Mr. Trudeau of hypocrisy on the issues of Indigenous reconciliation, advancing the rights of women, and protecting the interests of the middle class.
“You are a phony and you are a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country,” he accused, in a clearly planned opening salvo.
That approach appeared to work. For much of the night, Mr. Trudeau seemed almost passive in his responses, confining himself to tried-and-true Liberal talking points.
But to this observer, if anyone owned the night, it was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who offered a pitch-perfect positive message while somehow managing to shut down every voice raised against him. More than once, chaos reigned on stage, with leaders speaking over each other, leading to gibberish. Then Mr. Singh would calmly intervene, with his word the last one.
At one point, Mr. Singh silenced the squabbling Conservative and Liberal leaders by declaring: “What we have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing about who is worse for Canada. We’ve got to start presenting who would be best for Canada.” He managed similar feats of calm control of the debate time and again.
Unquestionably, Mr. Trudeau had the most difficult task, fending off progressive challenges from the New Democrats and Greens, and on the right from an aggressive Mr. Scheer. But he often appeared more bystander than participant.
By reciting nostrums about helping the middle class and lifting children out of poverty, Mr. Trudeau seemed content to end the evening without suffering any major embarrassments – an incumbent politician protecting a comfortable lead. The only problem is, the polls show no such lead.
At times he did fight back: “We have a vision, but it is a different vision from yours,” Mr. Trudeau said to Mr. Scheer. "You’re choosing, just like [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford did, to hide your platform from Canadians and deliver cuts to services and cuts to taxes for the wealthy.”
But Mr. Scheer was waiting for him. “You seem to be oddly obsessed with provincial politics,” he grinned, pointing out that “there is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership” that Mr. Trudeau might wish to consider.
Toward the end of the debate, Mr. Trudeau did round on Mr. Scheer, saying “you have been not unequivocal in defending women’s rights.” For a few moments the two talked incomprehensibly over each other, until Mr. Singh calmly interjected: “A man has no position in a discussion on a woman’s right to choose. Let’s be very clear on that.” It was like that all night.
With six candidates on the stage, the format threatened to prevent any substantive exchanges, but leaders managed nonetheless to get their point across, including Green Leader Elizabeth May, though she seldom ventured off environmental issues.
A belligerent Maxime Bernier, Leader of the new and populist People’s Party, had his first national opportunity to present a platform that opposes both multiculturalism and the fight against climate change. But though he was a force at the beginning of the debate, Mr. Bernier’s energy appeared to flag as time went on.
Damningly, Mr. Scheer said Mr. Bernier had once been a responsible politician. But "now you are making your policies based on trying to get likes and retweets from the darkest parts of Twitter.”
Meanwhile, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet appeared to be enjoying himself, having little to win and less to lose. When others on the stage tiptoed around the new law that bans the wearing of religious symbols by some public servants in prominent positions, he curtly declared: “Quebec doesn’t need to be told what to do or what not to do about its own values.”
Mr. Scheer paid a high price last week in the TVA debate, as he found himself struggling in French against other leaders. After that debate, and a Globe story revealing that the Conservative Leader held American as well as Canadian citizenship, Conservative support started to erode.
On Monday, Mr. Scheer gambled that a full-on assault at the very top of the debate would reverse the slide. More often than not, he pulled it off. Mr. Trudeau may regret his cautious approach. But if the night belonged to anyone, it belonged to Jagmeet Singh.