Winners and losers from the election debate
TORONTO – It was a night full of zingers, blunders and more than a little shouting. But who won the first official leaders debate?
- Canada debate 2019: Party leaders square off on policy
- REPLAY: Live fact-checking and analysis of the debate
Political pundits are split. Many say NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh owned the night with a relaxed tone and clear arguments. Others give the victory to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Conservative Scheer, arguing that both held their ground against an onslaught of attacks.
With two weeks to go before election day, here’s how the leaders fared.
LIBERAL LEADER JUSTIN TRUDEAU
Trudeau walked into the debate with a bullseye on his back and a litany of uncomfortable topics to address: the SNC-Lavalin affair, his decision to stand by a Nova Scotia candidate despite sexist tweets, and photos that emerged of him in blackface and brownface.
That considered, Trudeau’s former political rival Tom Mulcair says the Liberal leader came out of the debate as the winner.
“I think that clearly Justin Trudeau, once again, because nobody was able to score a knockout, comes ahead on point, but I think Andrew Scheer was a very close second,” Mulcair, the former NDP leader, told CTV News Channel following the debate.
Trudeau was largely on the defence all night as other leaders went after his record on everything from climate change to pipelines to Indigenous affairs. For his part, Trudeau explained his government’s achievements clearly and succinctly, often as a list.
He also didn’t get flustered, said Aleem Kanji, non-partisan strategist and vice-president of government relations for Sutherland Corporation.
“He didn’t take the bait in a lot of the mud that was thrown at him in the course of this debate,” Kanji said.
The Liberal leader landed one of the night’s sharpest one-liners, which was more of a one-two punch. While addressing People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, whose views have been called nationalistic and xenophobic, Trudeau equated him to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
“Your role on this stage seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately,” Trudeau said.
Mulcair also credited Trudeau for taking a stance on Bill 21, a recently passed, popular law in Quebec that bans public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious dress, such as a turban or hijab.
Trudeau said he was the only one on stage “who would say yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this.” He accused Singh of not leaving the door open to a challenge.
“I think it was the most prime ministerial moment for Justin Trudeau when he said he was willing to fight it,” Mulcair said.
“It’s going to cost him in Quebec,” Mulcair added. “But I also think that people in the rest of Canada will recognize in that answer someone they can identify with.”
Evan Solomon, host of CTV’s Question Period, said Trudeau took a low-key approach that could cost him.
“Trudeau thought, hey, I’m the prime minister, I’m the incumbent, I’m going to be above the fray,” he said.
“The problem for Trudeau is he risked being overshadowed.”
Liberal strategist Jennifer Arp said that Trudeau rose to the occasion, but she doubts that any leader was convincing enough to win over undecided voters.
“He focused on what the government has done in the last four years, he focused on the importance of continuing along that plan, moving forward. He tried as best as he could to stay out of the fray despite the constant attacks by Mr. Scheer especially,” she said.
“So I think that he had a great, great night last night.”
CONSERVATIVE LEADER ANDREW SCHEER
Scheer’s goal was to position himself as the best alternative to Trudeau, while painting the Liberal government as out of touch with the concerns of everyday Canadians.
And he came out swinging. Asked how he’d defend Canadian values on the world stage, Scheer quickly pivoted to an attack on Trudeau. He accused Trudeau of wearing a “feminist mask” and a “middle-class mask” and called him a “phoney” who “does not deserve to govern this country.”
Scheer’s sharp-toned answer was picked up by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who said she would like to answer the Canadian values question, “in contrast to what we just heard.”
Solomon said Scheer’s combative opener was a big risk.
“Mr. Scheer is actually a very likeable guy, but he decided to discard the dimples and go for the angry suit,” Solomon said.
“Now that’s a very divisive strategy. Partisans like it – but can he grow his base? So that was his gamble.”
Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer agreed that it was a gamble, but he thinks it paid off.
“The reason why I liked the gamble, it was a calculated gamble, is this: a lot of people tune out of the debate after the first sort of 15 or 20 minutes,” he said.
“For better or worse, I would say that clip drove a lot of the news coverage because it happened so early in the debate that people were able to build their stories around it.”
CTV News political commentator Scott Reid, a former speechwriter under former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, said Scheer had a rocky performance.
“I thought that Scheer had a rough night. I thought he couldn’t get traction, I thought he was under attack a lot,” Reid said.
“I think we saw Mr. Scheer who really lacked the passion. It didn’t come out.”
For Adrienne Batra, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, Scheer landed one of the night’s strongest lines when he pointed out how many times Trudeau mentioned Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“Mr. Trudeau, you seem oddly obsessed with provincial politics. There is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership and if you are so focused on provincial politics, go and run for the leadership of that party,” Scheer said.
In one of his softer moments, Scheer lauded Singh for handling issues of race “with a lot of class” during the campaign, seemingly alluding to his private conversation with Trudeau following the brownface scandal.
Scheer has consistently polled behind Trudeau as preferred prime minister. In the coming days, keep a close eye on Nanos Research numbers to see whether that gap closes.
GREEN PARTY LEADER ELIZABETH MAY
May has openly said she doesn’t expect the Greens to form government, so her goal was to position her party as best suited to hold the governing party accountable, particularly when it comes to climate change.
As the most experienced federal politician on stage, May often came across as clear and in control. At one point during the debate on the economy, May pivoted to discuss healthcare – prompting the other leaders to follow suit.
On the environment, May repeatedly tore into the other parties’ platforms as not good enough to meet the global environmental crisis.
At one point, May confronted Trudeau directly on the Liberal climate plan.
“It’s not good enough to have better rhetoric than Mr. Scheer,” she said.
Don Martin, host of CTV’s Power Play, said May was exceptionally strong on climate change – an issue that voters have identified as their top concern this election.
“Elizabeth May, if you want to talk about climate change, she was hammering home better than anybody on that,” Martin said.
But Solomon suggested that May left the debate in no better position than when she went in.
“Elizabeth May was Elizabeth May. I don’t think she helped or hurt herself,” he said.
One of her most memorable points was when she lashed out at Scheer for his personal views on abortion. Scheer has said he is personally against abortion but would not reopen a national debate on the issue.
“And I think that moment that Elizabeth May wheeled on him and said ‘Not an inch, we can’t trust you on women’s choice,’ I think that’s the kind of thing – unlike a lot of things we’ve heard – that might move votes,” Reid said.
NDP LEADER JAGMEET SINGH
After months of dismal polling for the NDP, Singh had a high bar for the night: convince left-leaning voters that they should vote for him rather than Trudeau.
If one thing is for certain, Singh came across as the most relaxed in the debate. He drew laughs several times, including once when he was mistakenly called "Mr. Scheer."
“I wore a bright orange turban on purpose today!” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
If there was a winner tonight, Batra said it would be Singh – narrowly.
“Nobody had a big win tonight, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Mr. Singh tonight. I think he articulated himself quite clearly. He started out a bit tense, but loosened up. He went after Justin Trudeau on the Indigenous issues. He was able to go after Justin Trudeau on a lot of the social issues – areas by which that progressive left vote will look at the NDP and think, OK, I’m comfortable with this,” she said.
“I think this was the Singh-Scheer show tonight.”
Solomon agreed that Singh stood apart.
“He had some good zingers, but he thought, you know what, there’s not a lot of depth in this debate, there’s too little time. I’m going to go for likeability.”
“So he was quite likeable, and he is widely seen to have won the debate. His problem is there is less than two weeks left. Is there enough runway to actually make up the ground?”
Singh also delivered a powerful one-two punch against Scheer and Trudeau while discussing climate change policy.
"I want to say this directly to Canadians, you do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny. There is another option,” Singh said.
NDP commentator Tom Parkin said Singh’s presence on stage will be remembered.
“He had a presence on the stage that was quite commanding, whereas the others were constantly over-talking, Jagmeet would sometimes turn to the camera and talk to people about their problems and I think that really matters that he was trying to make a connection and prove his point … that he doesn’t work for the rich and powerful,” Parkin said.
In recent weeks, polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between the Greens and NDP. Singh may have set the best tone and delivered some bite-sized moments perfect for social media, but Kanji doubts it will be enough to turn the tides where the NDP needs it most: Quebec.
“I don’t see the NDP picking up support and seats in Quebec,” he said.
PEOPLE'S PARTY LEADER MAXIME BERNIER
For Bernier, the debate was all about stealing the spotlight from Scheer. Polling shows that the newly formed People’s Party – created in the aftermath of Bernier’s unsuccessful bid for the Conservative leadership – is only competitive in a handful of ridings.
If Bernier has any chance of forming official party status, he’ll need to win right-leaning seats from the Conservatives.
Overall, Bernier did little to reach across the aisle and try to invite new voters under his party’s tent. He opened up the night by saying he would put “Canada first,” mirroring U.S. President Donald Trump’s America First policy. At one point, he compared May’s spending approach to the political turmoil in Venezuela.
Singh delivered a sharp rebuke early on in the debate as he defended his stance that Bernier should never have been invited to participate.
“After a couple of minutes of this debate tonight, I think people can clearly see why I didn’t think you should deserve a platform,” Singh said.
If there was a loser at the debate, Martin says, it was Bernier.
“He seemed to talk too much and had positions that were out of sorts,” he said.
BLOC QUEBECOIS LEADER YVES-FRANCOIS BLANCHET
The English-language debate was never going to be where Blanchet won over voters. His campaign slogan is “Le Quebec, c’est nous” – or, “Quebec, it is us” – and his party’s platform includes a focus on protecting Quebec’s sovereignty and language.
Even so, Blanchet had a clear mission at the English-language debate: convince voters in Quebec to elect his party over the Liberals, who continue to lead polls in the French-speaking province.
Blanchet was an ardent supporter of Quebec values, standing up in support of Bill 21. He also took aim at fellow Quebecer Bernier, who he accused of not doing enough on climate change.
“Somebody invoking the truth shouldn’t be somebody denying climate change,” he said.
Martin said Blanchet’s performance was never going to be the main event, but he spoke to his audience.
“I don’t know if Blanchet did much to win over English Canada, but that wasn’t the objective of the exercise. He’s playing to a one-province audience,” Martin said.
Blanchet’s real test will be Thursday, when the six federal leaders face off for another French-language debate.
SO WHO WON?
Political pundits are split as to who won, with most saying no leader can claim victory.
The Toronto Star’s editorial board wrote that the debate saw “no one immediately emerge as the clear winner.”
“Trudeau had tried to stay above the fray, adopting a measured and at times oddly low-key stance, but late in the evening exhibited more fire,” the Star wrote.
The Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote that leaders’ debates rarely deliver a knockout blow, and this year’s contest was no exception. However, the Globe credited Singh with a strong night.
“He came into this election in deep trouble, with the Greens and BQ alike threatening to eat what remains of his voting base. But on Monday night, he appeared the most happy and relaxed of the candidates, was often precise in his attacks on Mr. Trudeau, and was able to joke about the fact that he was three different times called ‘Mr. Scheer,’” the Globe wrote.
Globe journalist John Ibbitson went a step further, praising Singh for “a pitch-perfect positive message while somehow managing to shut down every voice raised against him.”
“On Monday, Mr. Scheer gambled that a full-on assault at the very top of the debate would reverse the slide. More often than not, he pulled it off. Mr. Trudeau may regret his cautious approach. But if the night belonged to anyone, it belonged to Jagmeet Singh,” he wrote.
In Quebec, La Presse journalist Joel-Denis Bellavance wrote that it is “unlikely” that little will change in polls after Monday’s performance. He credited Trudeau for defending his record over the past four years and stirring up the “bogeyman” of Stephen Harper’s Conservative years.
Bellavance agreed that Singh delivered a strong performance, writing that he “undoubtedly scored valuable points” that could bolster him going into election day.
The Ottawa Citizen’s Gloria Galloway crowned Singh the winner of the night, with “a close second” for May.
“Both answered questions directly without turning every response into a personal attack,” she wrote.
Postmedia’s Christie Blatchford argued that there wasn’t a clear winner. But, in her view, Trudeau was the clear loser. She described the Liberal leader as “grey, uncomfortable and sweaty from the outset” and said he struggled without a teleprompter.
Voters will decide who will lead the country on Oct. 21. Whether or not tonight’s performance moves the needle is yet to be seen, but Kanji doesn’t expect any breakout moment.
“I’m not sure anybody definitively won this debate and I expect the polls to remain tight over the Thanksgiving weekend and as we lead into the election,” he said.