OTTAWA—They are the high-stakes events of a campaign that can give even a veteran politician a bad case of the nerves.
Just past the halfway point of the campaign, this election heads into a key phase with three debates — two French and one English — that will see Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau face his political rivals for the first time.
These are key matchups that could influence voter intentions in the final weeks, especially ahead of Thanksgiving when advance polls open for Canadians to cast their ballots.
“In a close election, the stakes are super high. If you’re in that spot and standing behind those podiums, I can only imagine how terrifying it is because it’s all on the line,” said Jason Lietaer, a former senior aide to Stephen Harper and now president of Enterprise, a firm that offers strategic communications.
The first matchup happens Wednesday when Trudeau debates Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet in Montreal in a French debate organized by Quebec-based television network TVA.
Two debates follow next week — an English debate on Monday and another French debate on Oct. 10 — that will feature those four leaders as well as Green party Leader Elizabeth May and Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada.
Asked about the debates and which rival he see as his adversary on stage, Trudeau insisted Tuesday that he doesn’t “see elections as being about adversaries.
“I’m thinking of voters … Canadians will watch those debates… and they will make a choice, a choice on the direction they want the country to take,” he said.
Speaking in Vancouver, Singh said he’s looking forward to finally being able to challenge the Liberal leader, who skipped an earlier debate.
“I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to confront Mr. Trudeau because he has broken promises. He’s broken promises to young people who need concrete action,” Singh said.
Lietaer said the French debates will be important to shape opinions among Quebec voters, starting with Trudeau who needs to win big in the province if he hopes to form government again.
But the stakes are high too for Blanchet, as he tries to return the Bloc to its former strength, and Singh, who is trying to avoid losing the 15 seats the New Democrats currently hold there.
The stakes are even higher in the English debate, Lietaer said.
“Mr. Trudeau is trying to save his government … Mr. Scheer is trying to prove to Canadians that he is worthy of their consideration to be prime minister,” he said.
The presence of Bernier on the stage — “bit of court jester and a bit of offensive old uncle” — could reinforce Scheer as moderate and reasonable, he said.
Trudeau’s habit of doing town hall meetings, where he fields questions from Canadians, has served as a good rehearsal for election debates. But the dynamics are different now. In 2015, he was the underdog, his party in third place. “Now he’s the guy with the target on his back. Playing defence at these debates is a lot different than playing offence,” Lietaer said.
For May, the debate is a chance to impress Canadians and capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the other parties, he said.
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, cautioned that people can be too focused waiting for a knockout moment.
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
“The effects of debates are profound, but sometimes in less visible or obvious ways,” Kurl said, noting that impressions are formed in the days that follow by commentary and reaction to the political back-and-forth.
“For less-known leaders, if they can cut through the noise and cross talk, it’s an opportunity to shine and define themselves,” she said.
And the debates can help define ballot issues, Kurl said. “An exchange might have a crystallizing effect on the issue or question that voters will ultimately decide on,” she said in an email exchange.
The debates come as polls suggest the race remains tight for the Oct. 21 election, a reality underscored by new work by the Angus Reid Institute. The institute looked at the 67 closest ridings that were decided by five percentage points or less in 2015 and found that this time around Conservative support is up in those districts while Liberal backing is down.
The findings mean that the Liberals face a “much tougher road” to reach the threshold of 170 seats and a majority government this time around. “Many of these close ridings that helped to push the party over the majority line in 2015 are less reliable now,” the institute said in an analysis of the findings.
With three weeks of campaigning now complete and more than two weeks left to go until voting day, Canadians have a fuller picture of what the political parties want to do if elected.
Over the past week of the campaign, the Green party and the Liberals released their full policy plans and the sight of thousands of people marching in Canadian cities on Friday to demand action on climate change thrust the environment squarely into the election discussion.
In an election where the Liberals are tussling for centre-left and progressive voters, Sunday’s platform release featured a variety of targeted measures, from helping students with tuition and loan repayments, to a 10 per cent increase in old age security payments for seniors over 75.
And the bottom line reinforced what the Liberals appeared to have concluded in their first mandate when they broke their vow to balance the budget — Canadians don’t appear to be too bothered by deficit spending. The proposed new spending would push the deficit to $27.4 billion in 2020-21.
The Green Party of Canada released its platform a week ago and it featured a heavy emphasis on the environment and tackling what it calls the “climate emergency” but also includes policies on trade, immigration, natural resources, Indigenous issues and governance.
That leaves the Conservatives as the only major party in this race yet to unveil their full platform. They promise that it’s coming soon and say it will be fully costed, showing how the party would balance the books within five years, despite some big-ticket promises so far.