Notes on the Globe and Mail Leaders’ Debate 2015

Opinion/Analysis: Olivier Jarvis Lavoie

[8:30 AM EST on September 18, 2015]

Justin Trudeau performed beyond expectations, probably by far. He was well-briefed and displayed, at a minimum, that he can memorize numerous talking points, and he knows how to insert them at opportune moments in the discussion. He answered most questions as directly as any politician ever would and his messaging around the need to “invest in Canada’s future,” and “kick-start the economy” to provoke “growth” starting “right now” was compelling. By the end of it, he may even have come close to convincing some of his sceptics that he knows what he is talking about.

However, as the debate went on, his interventions grew increasingly repetitive. The words “growth” and “transit,” for example, became as common as eye blinks before three-quarters of the debate was up. One line that may come back to haunt him is that “balance isn’t what Canada needs,” which is reminiscent of his statement uttered in the House of Commons, that “benefiting every family isn’t what is fair.” Those already onside with him, and others, will know exactly what he meant. Still, it makes for an awkward sound bite. It was, however, his only serious mistake of the night.

Given how out of his depth Trudeau was expected to be in a 90-minute debate on the economy with a Prime Minister trained in economics and an experienced former provincial Cabinet minister, it’s fair to say Liberals will be pleased with his performance. It’s also fair to say that it will not hurt him.

Thomas Mulcair did not win this debate. He spent a great deal of time attacking the Liberals and the Conservatives, but hardly even attempted to rally a sense of “mission” inspired by a clear, new vision for the future. Rather than making a forceful, positive case to vote NDP, he made a cautious one, reliant on the negative premise that everyone else is worse: Stephen Harper has failed, and the Liberals can’t be trusted. He seemed to be saying: “Tweedle Dee is awful, and so is Tweedle Dum; but, there’s always us. Don’t worry, we won’t change things TOO much, so you can trust us in power.”

He was clearly trying to reassure people that his party isn’t a risky choice. However, that comes at a cost: where’s the bold vision on offer? This is, after all, a “change” election, which is being fought on the economy. So, a bold economic platform might help. However, it’s hard to be bold without being risky, and the NDP seems to have decided it can’t afford to rock the boat. For example, Mulcair spoke of raising the corporate tax rate to something still below the average of what it’s been under the Harper government, and “well below” what it was under the Liberals. He then referred to that policy as “demanding the wealthy pay something approximating their fair share.” But if the Liberals, and even the Harper government, have both fairly recently taxed corporations at higher rates than the NDP is now proposing, what’s so bold and progressive about this policy? And if the point is precisely that it isn’t bold, in order to reassure nervous voters, then why should and how could it inspire those (a majority, by all accounts) who want real change?

By promising a massive (deficit-financed) infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy and create jobs, coupled with tax increases on the wealthiest 1% of Canadians, Liberals have challenged the NDP to oppose propositions that polls consistently show the majority of Canadians support. In arguing against the “short-sighted” Liberal plan, and insisting on the need to balance budgets to avoid “saddling future generations” with debt, Mulcair blurs the lines between the Conservatives’ and New Democrats’ economic policy, since his rhetoric here is identical to Harper’s. While other economic issues are obviously at play, the NDP’s national daycare promise, then, seems to stand as the main distinguishing factor between them and the other parties. Although Mulcair bought it up more than once during the debate, it did not suffice to prove the clear superiority of the NDP’s overall plan for the economy.

Mulcair relied heavily on talking points, and resorted to snarky one-liners several times that may go over well with those already on board with him, but not so much with others. In this vein, Mulcair’s “best” line was directed at Trudeau, when the latter said the NDP’s promises on establishing a national $15 minimum wage are “puffs of smoke.” Mulcair quipped: “You know something about that, don’t you Justin?” The audience laughed, and so did I. Nonetheless, for a man who often poses as the only adult in the room, his approach was sarcastic and not very serious. All in all, Mulcair did not lose the debate. He did not win it, either. Since he was not expected to lose, the fact that he didn’t cannot be considered a victory.

Stephen Harper was supposed to own this debate. He didn’t. He failed to convincingly counter attacks, although he was clearly at ease with the subject matter and no one managed to knock him out completely. While in the first debate, he successfully conveyed the air of a parent of teenagers, this time, he was right in the fray as one of the kids. His answers were predictable, whether or not they were truthful or persuasive.

His basic message was simple: thanks to his good stewardship, Canada weathered the Great Recession (starting in 2008) better than any other country, and now we are on track. The federal budget is once again in surplus, and electing a new government would risk plunging us back into hard times. He insisted the NDP would run deficits, despite their promise not to, and accused the other parties of wanting to raise taxes and spend massively “for no reason.” His stance came off as proud, yet somewhat complacent; he offered no plan to improve economic growth going forward, other than staying the present course. He promised to keep taxes low, to reduce them even further, and to keep the federal budget in balance. He conceded some problems afflict the Canadian economy, but insisted no drastic action is needed. He flatly denied that things are as bad as many experts claim, while playing up fears about the damage his opponents would do to his good work over the years.

His performance will not lose him votes he could count on going in. It is doubtful he won new votes. This was Stephen Harper’s home turf, both intellectually and physically: the debate was about economics, his chosen field, and it was held in the Conservative home base of Alberta. It was a chance for him to demonstrate mastery over the issues and put the others to shame for their ignorance. Victory was possible, yet he seemed almost tired. He failed to win. Therefore, he lost.

In sum, Justin Trudeau outperformed. Mulcair did not win. Harper may have done as well as Mulcair. However, compared to Trudeau, he did not seem the old master his admirers see him as, so he lost the symbolic battle. Trudeau proposed something ambitious, which neither of the others did. Mulcair proposed something cautious, but different from Harper’s plan. Insofar as the prime minister claims his policies have worked well and require only “targeted” changes, he is basically proposing more of the same.

Trudeau comes in first. Mulcair comes in second. Harper comes in last.

See also: “The Globe and Mail Leaders’ Debate 2015 (YouTube)

See also: “‘Tale of the tape: Transcript of the Globe debate on the economy’ (Maclean’s)