Chantal Hébert (The Toronto Star)
Once the ace in the NDP’s election deck, Quebec will probably—as of now—remain a wild card until the Oct. 19 vote.
With the NDP bleeding support in Quebec, Thomas Mulcair needed to stand head and shoulders above the competition at Friday’s second French-language leaders debate to have a shot at staunching a debilitating hemorrhage.
The last published poll, done by Léger Marketing just before the debate, reported a tightening four-way battle in the province between the NDP, the Liberals, the Conservatives and a back-from-the-dead Bloc Québécois.
In the bigger national picture, that trend would dash NDP hopes for a victory this month.
It is not that Mulcair had a bad debate night, but rather that he fell short of dominating the leaders podium.
In particular, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was described by most Quebec pundits as missing in action at the time of the first French-language debate a week and a half ago, was much more proactive on Friday.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe also had strong moments over the course of the two-hour debate.
The niqab issue that has acted as a catalyst for a steady drop in NDP fortunes in Quebec did not come up until the second half of the debate.
Both Mulcair and Trudeau put up a more spirited defence of their opposition to the niqab ban than they had to date.
But with an overwhelming majority of Quebecers—including most members of its political class—overwhelmingly in favour of requiring Muslim women to unveil their face to take the citizenship oath, this is not the ground on which either of them can expect to score a lot of points in this province.
Mulcair’s success or lack thereof on Friday rested on his capacity to change the channel.
On that score, NDP strategists must have hoped that there would be a deal at the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in Atlanta in time for Friday’s debate.
Both the dairy and the auto industries are concerned that they will pay the price of Canada’s admission to a massive free trade zone across the Pacific. In the event of a deal, Mulcair is expected to zero in on the concessions involved in securing it.
He declared on Friday that an NDP government would not feel bound by a trade deal struck by the outgoing Harper government. But with the trade talks continuing over the weekend, the still hypothetical deal made for an elusive target.
Polls show that regime change remains the primary objective of a majority of Quebec voters.
But with the Liberals now ahead of the NDP in national voting intentions, Mulcair’s case for sticking with a party liable to form a government rather than returning to the Bloc Québécois (or voting for the Conservatives) for the sake of a niqab ban stands to be interpreted by more than a few voters as an argument for supporting Trudeau.
Based on his performance as the lead opposition player in question period, Mulcair was initially the leader most expected to shine on the debate podium of the 2015 campaign.
Instead of sealing his deal with voters, he lost ground at every step of the debate process.
Trudeau and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May were the main beneficiaries of the Maclean’s debate. Held on the first week of the campaign, it provided the Liberal leader with an early opportunity to reverse his party’s downward trend in voting intentions. May succeeded in giving voters reasons to want her back in Parliament after the election.
The Sept. 17 debate on the economy saw Mulcair lose the edge in the battle over which leader best incarnates change to his Liberal rival.
The first French-language debate, one week later, put Harper and Duceppe back on the Quebec map. They both got a boost out of the niqab controversy at NDP expense.
On Monday, Trudeau and Harper outgunned Mulcair on the podium of the foreign policy debate.
Over the past three years, Mulcair had consistently impressed in the role of prosecutor-in-chief of the government. But coming out of the five-round debate fight, he is not even the leading contender for his former job of official opposition leader.