09/24/2015 12:24 EDT

Why You Should Watch The Leaders' French Debate

For one, the main candidate fending off the attacks will be Thomas Mulcair, not Stephen Harper.

UPDATE: The debate begins at 8 p.m. ET and can be viewed at this livestream at cpac.ca

The French-language federal leaders’ debate on Thursday will be unlike others in this campaign. For one, the main candidate fending off the attacks will be Thomas Mulcair, not Stephen Harper.

Mulcair’s NDP held 54 seats in Quebec when Parliament was dissolved. Public opinion surveys earlier in the campaign had the NDP in the mid-40s in terms of support, suggesting the party might pick up a dozen new seats. Recently, however, the NDP numbers seem to have taken a dive.

At the moment, poll aggregator threehundredandeight.com projects Mulcair will win 56 of the province’s 78 seats.

A new survey by Leger on Wednesday suggested the NDP had dropped eight points over the past three weeks, to 38 per cent of support in the province.

The three main parties appeared to have gained at the NDP’s expense with the Liberals up two points to 22 per cent, the Bloc also up two points to 20 per cent, and the Conservatives up five points to 18 per cent, The Globe and Mail reported.

A reporter takes a photo of the set for Thursday night's French language leaders debate in Montreal. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)

Nationally, the Liberals and Conservatives were tied at 31 per cent, with the NDP in third place with 29 per cent of support, the poll suggested. The margin of error was 2.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20 with 2,115 Canadians surveyed; the margin of error for the Quebec sample, 1,023, was not provided.

The three-way race depicted in national polls masks what’s really going on, Sébastien Dallaire, Leger’s vice-president of public affairs, told The Huffington Post Canada.

“It’s really in Quebec that the NDP stands out...[but] outside of Quebec, it’s not a three-way tie, it’s a more of a two-way race between the Liberals and the Conservatives,” he said.

The debate could be immensely important, Dallaire suggested. If the NDP’s support dips in the province, the numbers nationally could change significantly and send the New Democrats down into third, he said.

“If people in Quebec realize that the NDP vote outside of Quebec is not in a very strong position, then their vote in the province could definitely soften over time,” he added.

So the stakes are very high Thursday for the five leaders who will crowd onto a stage at La Maison Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the public broadcaster, but especially for Mulcair, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

And unlike either of the leaders’ debates so far, this will be the first — and only — televised discussion to include all the major parties during this election campaign.

Mulcair needs to hang on to his base. And it may not be easy.

“He is going to be everybody’s piñata,” Dallaire said. “Everyone in Quebec will be taking aim at Thomas Mulcair, because he is clearly the frontrunner and has been for a long time.”

Mulcair can expect to get pummelled by Harper and Duceppe over the niqab issue. Both the Bloc and the Conservatives believe Mulcair and the NDP are vulnerable on the issue because they are opposed to the ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies.

“Asking women to make themselves invisible is not only creating inequality, it’s asking them to disappear as individuals,” Duceppe recently said in an interview with the Up For Debate women’s issues group.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Photo: Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Mulcair tried to explain, in both French and English, why his party is not opposed to what he described as an object that could be seen as a symbol of oppression or inferiority. Nobody has the right to tell a woman what she can or cannot wear. And if she is oppressed, he said, depriving her of citizenship is no way to help her.

In Quebec, Mulcair’s opposition to the ban — which is also the position of Trudeau’s Liberal party — is extremely unpopular. But Trudeau may escape much of his opponents’ fire because they have little gains to make in Quebec by attacking the Liberals. The Conservatives and the Bloc, however, believe seats can be won on this wedge issue at the NDP’s expense.

“Thomas Mulcair is going to have a difficult night,” political scientist André Lamoureux declared. There are some positions that the NDP holds that are not well known, the lecturer at the Université du Québec à Montréal said, pointing to Mulcair’s support for the wearing of the niqab while voting as well.

“They are clearly worried about what is happening in Quebec right now. They will lose their feathers,” Lamoureux said. “He needs to reassure the Quebec people. I thought he looked really nervous [Wednesday.]”

Harper won't get an easy ride

Harper is also likely to attack Mulcair on security — suggesting that an NDP government would not be tough enough on homegrown terrorists, such Martin Couture-Rouleau who deliberately rammed his car into two Canadian Armed Forces soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., last October. The government described the act as inspired by the Islamic State (ISIL).

Harper’s spokeswoman Catherine Loubier told The Huffington Post that the Conservatives are also impatient to discuss their economic plan and to contrast their balanced-budget plan with Mulcair’s and Trudeau’s “high-deficit, high-tax plans.”

That’s not to say that Mulcair will give Harper an easy ride. Both he and Trudeau oppose the Conservatives’ plan to add a toll to the Champlain Bridge. They also oppose the Tory cuts to the CBC and have each pledged to reverse Harper’s pension changes by rolling back the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) to 65 from the current 67.

Bloc Québécois leader fights for his party’s political life

“This is going to be the most important debate [for Duceppe],” Lamoureux, the political scientist, said.

The NDP expects Duceppe will be the most aggressive participant on Thursday. Any gains the Bloc might hope to make will come at the NDP’s expense — winning back seats lost to the NDP in 2011.

“Nothing has really, really gone well for the Bloc,” Dallaire told HuffPost. The Bloc leader has suffered from a lack of visibility and his numbers have stalled, he said. “It will be his chance to really make a difference and kickstart the campaign.”

Duceppe is debating in his first language, he has experience from previous years’ debates, and has little to lose. Some pundits have even questioned whether his party will win any seats on Oct. 19.

Aside from the niqab, Duceppe is expected to go after Mulcair over the Energy East pipeline, which is also unpopular in Quebec. The NDP’s current position is “no” for now but maybe “yes” in the future after better environmental assessments.

“There are issues for Tom Mulcair that are really hard for him to take some very strong stances in [the rest of Canada] without running into some trouble possibly with some of his francophone voters, especially the soft nationalist vote,” Dallaire said.

Bloc spokesman Dominic Vallières suggested Duceppe might hit back at what his party sees as NDP double-talk, saying one thing in Quebec and something different in the rest of the country.

“When Quebec was shut out of the shipbuilding contracts, NDP MPs said this was a 'great day for Canada,' but those from Quebec said nothing on the topic,” Vallières wrote in an email.

“On the pipeline, Quebecers are clear they don’t want any…. I think Quebecers are disappointed they haven’t received their fair share in the past four years,” he added.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. (Photo: Mario Beauregard/CP)

Duceppe is also likely to stress that Mulcair’s promise to balance the books in his first year in office would lead to austerity.

“When austerity is proposed, as it is by Mulcair and Harper during a recession, the effect is to increase gender inequality, because who takes care of those with no access to health care when problems arise? Women,” the Bloc leader recently told Up For Debate.

Quebec’s provincial government is also in the middle of unpopular public sector cuts. “The mood in Quebec is not that favourable towards further, what people here refer to constantly as ‘austerity measures’,” Dallaire said. “So to come with a platform that says we are not going to run at a deficit at all cost, could for some voters be a bit of a warning sign, because they don’t want to hear about further cuts to services on top of what’s happening right now.”

The Bloc released a costed fiscal plan Wednesday that was, in its words, “very well counted” — no doubt a jab at the NDP’s fiscal outline which was roundly dismissed as having unrealistic projections.

“[This] is going to be the first time that Quebecers are going to see Mr. Duceppe, listen to him and see him. And what they do need is visibility,” McGill University political scientist Antonia Maioni said.

“[But] even if he does really well…[he’s] not going to go from here to 40 seats on the basis of what happens in the debate,” she noted.

Trudeau has much to gain — if he can make a positive impression

Although Trudeau’s support in Quebec appears to be low, Dallaire said he believes the leader can make some gains in the province.

While Mulcair and Trudeau hold similar views on the niqab and pipelines, the Liberal leader has less to lose on the issue because he’s not courting the same voters. “These positions may not be popular at first glance, but they may not hurt him because they are already known,” the pollster said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau boxed at a Montreal gym on Wednesday to warm up for the French-language debate. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Maioni, however, believes Trudeau’s task is nearly impossible: “In Quebec, it’s not just the message, it is the messenger.”

There are so many reasons for francophone Quebecers — those who haven’t voted Liberal since Jean Chrétein was prime minister — to stay away from the Grits, she said, listing the Liberals’ staunch support for the Clarity Act, the party’s refusal to embrace asymmetrical federalism, its position on religious accommodation, and specific policies such as C-51.

Lamoureux said he believes Trudeau needs to overshadow Mulcair in Thursday’s debates.

“He can’t afford not to. It’s Mulcair that has all the votes,” the UQAM political scientist added. “Quebec is extremely important because he cannot form a Liberal government without a strong presence in Quebec.”

Lamoureux said he expects Trudeau will stick to an economic theme, hammering Mulcair for a having a “mirage” as a platform, one that is “unrealistic” — such as the NDP’s daycare plan, which will work only if the provinces agree to help with funding.

Trudeau does have some things to sell, Lamoureux added. The Liberals “more generous” child benefit cheques could be very popular with families in the suburbs who would appreciate a few hundred bucks more each month, he said.

“If Justin Trudeau doesn’t give the best performance of this campaign, he will not win Quebec,” Lamoureux said. “He needs to be dazzling.”

Watch the debate:

The debate will air from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.

In French, it will be available on Radio-Canada.

In English with simultaneous translation, it will air on CBC News Network, CTV News Channel and CPAC. It will be available on the networks’ websites, as well as on YouTube.

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