In a campaign of blackface pictures, fudged résumés, personal attacks and accusations of hypocrisy all around, Canada’s political party leaders have all done a pretty good job of convincing voters not to support any of their opponents. Now, the task for each leader in Monday night’s debate should be to convince Canadians there is some compelling reason to choose them.
That’s what has been missing. The parties have put forward policies, and there are policy differences, but so far no leader has been able to punch through with a narrative that makes Canadians think they have a project they’d want to sign up for. The English-language debate may be their last best chance to do that.
Debates lend themselves to tactical manoeuvres because the drama typically comes from moments when one leader wheels on another with a line or a riposte that makes their opponent look inept or catches them in a contradiction.
But this whole campaign has looked like that. Hypocrisy has been the watchword.
The campaign started with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer saying Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is lying about the SNC-Lavalin affair and Mr. Trudeau’s surrogates taking shots at Mr. Scheer’s anti-abortion views. Then came rounds of self-inflicted wounds: the unearthing of stunning pictures of Mr. Trudeau in blackface, the news that Mr. Scheer’s claim he had been an insurance broker was not true. And so on. Each accused the other of hypocrisy.
The other leaders haven’t always looked serious, either. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May issued a massive spending platform that didn’t add up. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, weakened before the campaign even began, said he’d let provinces block resource projects but claimed it wouldn’t be a veto.
Amazingly, it all seemed to have no effect. In Sunday’s Nanos Research tracking poll, all six parties were within two percentage points of where they were in the first such poll of the campaign, on Sept. 13.
But perhaps we can speculate that those embarrassments did have an invisible impact – not in getting partisans to change teams but in discouraging the less partisan, and less certain, from choosing to support someone new.
Amid the accusations of hypocrisy, the leaders have yet to give voters a clear sense they have some kind of agenda for the country that they might subscribe to. Voters usually want that.
In 2015, Mr. Trudeau did not win simply because voters were tired of Stephen Harper – the Liberal Leader started the campaign behind NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. Instead, Mr. Trudeau proposed to address an uncertain economy by pumping money into infrastructure and sparking innovation, argued that Canada could both sell resources and tackle climate change and managed to spread a sense of hope and openness.
He won’t be able to recapture the hope now and his credibility has been bruised. But his campaign must surely be about more than the oft-repeated line about preventing a return to Mr. Harper’s ways. The Liberal slogan is “Choose Forward,” but Mr. Trudeau hasn’t done a great job of showing voters what that direction looks like. His 2019 platform has seemed more like a collection of benefits than Phase 2 of Project Trudeau. In particular, you’d expect him to argue, as he did Sunday, that he has the only plausible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A leader has to describe the mission.
Mr. Scheer has a relentless message about putting money in voters’ pockets, but that, too, has seemed like a list of tax breaks – competing with Mr. Trudeau’s own – rather than an agenda for governing.
It is possible: Mr. Harper was able to offer both tax breaks and an eye-catching governing agenda in 2006, when he ran against a Liberal government that seemed to scramble in all directions, by having a steely focus on five priorities, including health care, crime and accountability. Can Mr. Scheer make voters see a broader plan?
For the other leaders, there is one key goal in this debate: to explain the compelling reason to vote for the potential balance of power rather than government – perhaps as a statement on climate change (Ms. May), social programs (Mr. Singh), Quebec’s interests (Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet) or immigration (People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier).
But all the leaders – and especially Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer – should worry less about the drama of turning on another leader to accuse them of hypocrisy. They’d do better turning to the camera and trying to give voters a sense that there is something to vote for.