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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, right, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, centre, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, second right and moderator Paul Wells, left, finish the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Sept. 13, 2019.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

While Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May fought for the title of Chief Progressive Alternative at the first leaders’ debate of this election campaign, Andrew Scheer focused on the phantom menace who wasn’t even in the room.

The Maclean’s/Citytv national leaders’ debate, Thursday night, was defined by who wasn’t there: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. And the NDP, Green and Conservative Leaders were happy to make sport of his absence.

“I think we can all agree that Justin Trudeau is afraid of his record and that’s why he’s not here tonight,” Mr. Scheer declared.

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May, Singh attack Scheer as he targets Liberal record at leaders’ debate

To which Ms. May proposed, “We can now sing Kumbaya and keep going.”

Mr. Singh and Ms. May spent much of their time trying to prove they should be the first choice for progressive voters disenchanted with the Liberal record.

In that contest, Mr. Singh delivered a surprisingly assured performance. Over and over he lambasted both Liberal and Conservative tax cuts “that make life easier for the richest and harder for everyone else.”

He rarely took on Ms. May directly – the exception being a four-point takedown of Green positions that left Ms. May sputtering in anger – preferring to treat Mr. Scheer as a surrogate for Mr. Trudeau.

The NDP may be struggling, but Mr. Singh offered a poised and pointed performance. Pundits keep predicting disaster for rookie political leaders in debates. Mr. Trudeau proved them wrong in 2015, and Mr. Singh did better than many predicted Thursday night.

John Ibbitson says this federal election boils down to one thing, trust: either who voters trust the most to steer Canada in the years ahead, or who they distrust the least.

For generations, NDP leaders have conflated their Liberal and Conservative opponents as identical lackeys of the established order: Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Mr. Singh has happily embraced the trope. In that sense, it didn’t really matter whether Mr. Trudeau was there or not.

Ms. May showed the easy confidence of a leader who has been on similar stages umpteen times, as she once again urged voters to consider the Greens’ aggressive environmental policies.

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“We can’t stick to status quo decision-making and save ourselves at the same time,” she maintained.

But the Green Leader could be condescending to the other rookie leaders. And she has some very strange proposals, such as forcing SNC-Lavalin, the engineering giant charged with corrupt offences, to provide drinking water on reserves.

And this viewer had never before heard her response to Bill 21, the Quebec legislation banning many public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job. Ms. May would have the federal government find work for Quebeckers forced to leave the province as a result.

For his part, Mr. Scheer spent most of his time running down the Liberal record.

“We’ve seen what long-term, permanent deficits have done to this country in the past,” he observed. As for the others onstage, he did his best to pretend they weren’t even there.

Mr. Trudeau decided to skip the Maclean’s debate, and another on foreign policy hosted by the Munk Centre, choosing to limit himself to the two official debates, one in English and one in French, plus a second French-language debate hosted by TVA. The Liberal Leader is pursuing the classic front-runner strategy of limiting public appearances in order to avoid the risk of a misstep.

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The only problem with that approach is most polls show Mr. Trudeau tied with Mr. Scheer. He is trying to protect a non-existent lead. The decision was especially risky since it gave Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh a low-risk chance to get their feet wet, a dress rehearsal for the debates with Mr. Trudeau to come.

It was a wonkish night, even for wonks. Ms. May had a tendency to dominate debate on such complex issues as whether the Indigenous right to consultation was the equivalent of a veto on resource projects. She and Mr. Singh debated under which circumstances they might prop up a Liberal or Conservative minority government. (Ms. May would support whichever party committed to her carbon reduction target. Mr. Singh wouldn’t support the Conservatives under any circumstances.)

Moderator Paul Wells ended one section by saying, “That concludes, you may be relieved to hear, our discussion of environmental issues."

This debate occurs in the very first week of this election campaign. In future encounters, Mr. Singh might find himself challenged – not least by Mr. Trudeau when he finally appears. But when the histories are written, the real issue will be whether the Liberals were wise or foolish to skip this debate. We’ll see.

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