The English-language leaders’ debate Monday night saw federal party leaders fighting to get their platform tag-lines more airtime, while at the same time deflecting jabs from their opponents and firing off some choice zingers themselves.
Everyone was a target during the two hours, but what now? For a leader and their party to evolve, it can pay off when they reflect on the criticism they’ve received and adjust their strategy or messaging accordingly. What can the major party leaders learn from the debate?
We asked former party strategists to weigh in on the Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh’s performances, and share their analysis on the fairest critiques against each leader and what they and the parties can do post-debate, and with the two weeks that remain, to win over undecided voters and perhaps sway others to switch camps.
Kate Harrison: Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives must take a stand on Bill 21
The most fair criticism, and biggest disappointment for me this campaign has been the handling by all parties — Conservatives included — of Bill 21 in Quebec.
For legislation that is so blatantly bigoted, our party leaders seem content to (at best) tip-toe around the issue, and more alarmingly, make up excuses for this codified racism in hopes of achieving electoral success. This discomfort was palpable during last night’s debate, with the two candidates most likely to be prime minister — Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer — trading nuances on the issue, with neither confirming they would intervene should they take office.
While the Conservative calculus is the same as the other parties (i.e. rocking the boat too much in La Belle Province may spoil majority government hopes), it is a tough one for blue partisans to look past. Andrew Scheer’s entire MO has been the importance of personal freedom as a foundation for inclusive society; Bill 21 directly undermines that philosophy.
Equivocating on the bill, which has generally been the Conservatives’ strategy to date, is likely to drum up memories of the proposed niqab ban in 2015 (not the CPC’s finest hour). The campaign has been full of references to premiers and provinces, and it’s difficult for many Tories to defend this bill, despite being brought forward from a fellow blue government. And the argument of jurisdictional challenge is inconsistent and rings hollow, given Scheer is fine to set that aside for things like a national energy corridor.
I suspect we will be looking back in very recent history on this bill — and the indifference of our political leaders to address it — with shame.
The presence of a national party leader who is a person of colour has allowed Conservatives to skate on this issue. Fairly or not, Jagmeet Singh has faced more questions on Bill 21, as he’s the only candidate who would be directly impacted by its implementation.
But, given the rise of the Bloc Québécois and strength of the Liberals in Quebec, I wonder if it may not be time for Andrew Scheer and the CPC to take a moral stand on Bill 21 in a way other party leaders are not prepared to. The truth is that there would be no hesitation in doing so were this any other province, or any other government in a modern democracy.
I suspect we will be looking back in very recent history on this bill — and the indifference of our political leaders to address it — with shame. Andrew Scheer could be the one to call this out for what it is — it would certainly jive with the very principles he has put forward during his leadership of the party. And while it won’t play well in Quebec (where the road looks increasingly difficult for Scheer), it may earn him kudos from religious and racialized communities, as well as true blue believers who see the hatred in this bill for what it truly is.
Kate Harrison is a vice-president at Summa Strategies Canada, a government relations and public affairs firm in Ottawa. She is a former Conservative Party of Canada staffer and an occasional conservative pundit. Kate is a member of both the federal Conservative and Ontario Progressive Conservative parties, and a former executive member of the provincial PCs’ youth wing.
Cameron Holmstrom: The NDP need to answer, ‘How will you pay for it all?’
For the NDP at the federal level, one of the biggest bugaboos they have had to defend themselves against is critiques of the fiscal reality of their promises.
Despite the fact that NDP provincial governments have been proved to have the best fiscal management record in the country, federally the party has had this hanging over its head. Part of that is a function of never having formed a federal
So for any NDP platform that is released, answering the “How will you pay for it?” question is paramount. This becomes especially true in 2019, when the NDP has put forward some very progressive and very ambitious platform proposals, including national pharmacare and dental care programs.
In campaigns over the past two decades, platforms that promised big spending were not the easiest to get the electorate to accept, but the 2015 election seems to have changed that narrative. That has helped the NDP to be bold and progressive in this campaign, but that big question still remains.
The other big part of the challenge for the NDP is to convince voters the value in making such big investments and committing those kinds of funds towards them.
The party has addressed part of this so far by pointing to specific new revenue proposals, like a super-wealth tax on those making more than $20 million a year. But the other big part of the challenge for the NDP is to convince voters the value in making such big investments and committing those kinds of funds
In past campaigns, this would have been harder, but thanks to commitments from the Liberals and Conservatives in this campaign, the NDP can paint these proposals not as big spending items, but different choices to be made when compared to the other parties.
That is a much easier argument to make and we’ll see if it’s one the voting public is ready to embrace.
Cameron Holmstrom spent nine years working in the New Democratic Party Caucus in Ottawa, working for three different Members of Parliament. Over the past 13 years, he has worked on more than a dozen political campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. A proud citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, he served two terms as Policy and Communications Director of the NDP’s Aboriginal Peoples Commission and is a founding Co-Chair of the Ontario NDP’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee.
Susan Smith: Trudeau must sell two groups of voters on his climate plan
For the first time ever, climate change is a key election issue. In terms of airtime in the English language debate, the issue dominated the discussion as every leader attempted to compare and contrast their plans with the others.
As the owner of a pipeline and the chief steward of the environment, Trudeau is in a tough spot. He repeatedly cited the experts who have called his climate plan the only one that is “ambitious and doable.” He defended his government’s climate record against attacks from May, Scheer and Singh, and laid out the next steps in his environment agenda if re-elected.
The opposition leaders are in an enviable spot — they can narrow an issue to the “talking points” that suit their purposes, without being encumbered with the decisions and consequences that a prime minister faces while governing.
During the debate, May called out Trudeau for adhering to Harper targets while buying a pipeline. Scheer promoted his energy corridor and ripping up the Pan-Canadian Climate Accord. Singh forgot that his platform recommended domestic refining of oil and gas. Trudeau countered them all by noting that under his Climate Action Plan, his government is already three-quarters of the way to meeting Canada’s Paris commitments, while acknowledging that there is still work to do.
May and Singh are both free of the reality of knowing that their parties will form government, thereby skipping the reality check of the immediate need to diversify our natural resource market, get people in Alberta working again, power our economy and heat our homes.
May and Singh are both free of the reality of knowing that their parties will form government.
Trudeau’s platform outlines a commitment to achieving Paris emissions target reductions, and takes it further, including a roadmap of investments in innovation, conservation, and job retraining as well as actions that consumers can take themselves, that he says will lead Canada and Canadians to a net-neutral carbon economy by 2050. It includes retail-politics type measures like the single-use plastics ban, a commitment to planting two billion trees, the carbon price rebate and a $40,000 interest-free green home renovation loan for homeowners and landlords — items that are designed to appeal to youth, millennial voters and families.
As it gets closer to voting day, the prime minister needs to convince two groups of Canadians at the same time: Trudeau needs to reassure those concerned with climate change that his environmental strategy is the only practical and “ambitious” plan that makes progress; and he needs to convince others, for whom it might be issue number two, that Canada can build and sell a pipeline with a climate plan that is “doable” — without gutting the economy in the process. It’s a safe bet there will be consistent and persistent messaging from the Liberals on the environment in the final weeks of the campaign.
Susan Smith is a Principal and co-founder of Bluesky Strategy Group, a leading public affairs firm in Ottawa that provides clients government relations and strategic communications and media relations advice. With more than 25 years of experience working in and around Canadian politics, Susan is a regular commentator as a Power Panelist on CTV PowerPlay, and on CBC News Network, CBC Radio, CPAC and other political programs.