Kicking off the Campaign: the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate



Already notable for its length, campaign 2015 gained an early milestone on Day 5: the first English-language leaders debate.  Landing on the electoral calendar well before the parties have had an opportunity to unveil their full platforms, this debate pulled back the curtain to reveal where the targets lie.

As an opening volley in this campaign, the debate demonstrated that this election is likely to become a referendum on the record of the Conservative government, particularly on economic and environmental performance. However, the question remains: Where will Canadians choose to park their vote if they decide a change in government is required?  Both the NDP and the Liberals are focusing on attracting the middle class vote through support for child care, and demonstrating their commitment to improving Canada’s environmental record as a path towards economic growth (social license, market access, etc.).  The Greens had an opportunity to demonstrate their broad appeal beyond environmental issues, raising topics like international trade.

For the leaders, it is clear that this election is about Stephen Harper defending the Conservative record.  Firmly in the crosshairs of each candidate, Harper’s main role was to “clarify the facts” and deflect attacks leveled by Mulcair and Trudeau, who assumed the dual roles of decrying Harper’s record and approach while positioning their alternatives as the best for Canada.  While not neglecting the opportunity to criticize the Conservative record, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s focus was on demonstrating to voters that the Green Party is not a single issue party.

The Leaders

Debates often focus as much on the delivery as the content of the arguments.  This debate had a clear objective to create an environment far removed from the raucousness of Question Period. The debate was generally orderly, only devolving to a shouting match between two speakers at a handful of occasions. Body language was also an area of note. It was clear Mulcair was conscious of his disposition, smiling and looking directly at the camera, to soften his “Angry Tom” image. Harper maintained a poised and calm composure while Trudeau came across as energetic, ready to fight, well-briefed and eloquent. Trudeau’s approach was a clear response to recent polls, as if to say, “don’t count me out – I’m still very much in the running.”

The Issues

Given the format of the debate, the leaders’ positions on four key issues emerged: the economy, energy and the environment, the state of democracy and foreign policy and security.  Each leader contributed to a substantive debate on these issues. Absent from the debate were issues of social policy, fiscal transfers, health care, innovation and a litany of other policy issues.

The Economy

On the economy, it is clear that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are defending their economic record, urging Canadians to stick to the Conservative’s low tax plan and reject high tax, high debt plans that are not working in other countries.  Harper generally used economic performance of other G7 countries as a benchmark to defend Canada’s position, while other candidates focused on Canadian statistics benchmarked against historical performance.

The most revealing portion of the economy section of the debate was Tom Mulcair coaxing Stephen Harper into stating he “did not deny” that Canada was in a recession, emphasizing the contraction is in the oil sector with growth occurring elsewhere.  Combined with attacks from all three opposition parties on the Conservative record of eight consecutive deficit budgets, this likely is the starting point of one of the enduring themes for the campaign.

Aside from this admission, there were few surprises in the economy debate. The middle class is clearly the target demographic for Election 2015, with economic policies already on the record being highlighted by opposition party leaders. Trudeau opened the debate touting the Liberal plan to support the middle class and to strengthen the economy by shifting the tax burden to the wealthy. Mulcair reiterated support for one million $15/day child care spaces and a federal $15 minimum wage.

Energy and the Environment

The theme of defending the Conservative economic record spilled over into the energy and the environment debate, with an extended discussion on pipelines.  The parties share a view that the economy and the environment are not mutually exclusive, and they also agreed on the significance of oil sands to the economy.  However, what this means when it comes to resource development results in more diverse, but already known, public positions.

Harper noted his confidence that the Keystone XL project will be approved, regardless of the party of the next U. S. President. He also attempted to position Mulcair and Trudeau against the development of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in the battleground province of BC, and took the opportunity to note his opposition to carbon taxes, and his support for a North American-wide oil and gas regulatory framework.

Mulcair was pushed on his position of Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline and its impact on tanker traffic, noting his concern about the project, but ultimately hedging his position, saying that opposing projects in advance (a jab at the Green Party) was just as dangerous as supporting them blindly (a jab at the Conservatives). To avoid taking a side on particular projects, he stuck to his messaging on the integrity of the review process, calling for an objective evaluation in a credible assessment system, which has been lost under the Conservatives.

The strongest attacks against the Conservatives came from Elizabeth May, who called the Conservative’s record on climate a “litany of broken promises”, while being the only party leader to touch the sensitive issue of hydraulic fracturing in connection with the LNG industry. Trudeau said that Canadians have lost trust in Harper’s decisions and that public trust must be restored to gain social license and open up market access.

For the first time in the debate, the Liberals and NDP had each other in their sights, with Trudeau taking Mulcair to task for supporting the Energy East project in English while opposing it in French.

Notably, the issue of pipeline safety was absent from the debate.

The State of Democracy

After the end of a Parliamentary session dominated by issues of improprieties in the Senate, it comes as no surprise that the Senate made its way into the prime time debate.  However, with a lack of impetus from inside of Quebec, it may have been something of a surprise that a large portion of this debate was focused on national unity.

Trudeau segued from talking about youth disengagement to introducing the Clarity Act to the debate, putting Mulcair on the defensive. After arguing about which percentage of votes was the right one to determine separation, neither leader appeared to stake a winning flag on the issue. In a voice of reason, Harper stated that the issue does not need to be revisited, as Quebeckers have firmly rejected the sovereignty debate and the dialogue has moved on.

On the Senate, moderator Paul Wells asked Harper if he owed Canadians an apology for appointing problematic senators, to which Harper replied that it is not his job to apologize for the bad deeds of others. He was further taken to task on three items. First, on the constitutionality of his decision to not appoint any Senators; Second, on his past promise to not appoint any Senators who were not elected and Third (and potentially most damaging) on his political interference in asking senators to kill a bill adopted by the House of Commons, which was characterized as an affront to democracy.  The conversation then morphed into the topic of senate reform, where Mulcair reiterated his party’s support for senate abolition saying, “Harper says we need better senators; I think we need former senators.”

Foreign Policy and Security

The divergence between parties was not more evident than in the final debate on foreign policy and security.  The opening question saw Mulcair being asked whether an NDP government would ever send troops into combat, kickstarting a debate on Canada’s role in Iraq. Mulcair said that while an NDP government would consider troops into combat under the direction of a multilateral mission and with an exit strategy in mind, the NDP are not supportive the mission in Iraq, as it is a US-lead mission with which they disagree.

Security is a key issue for the Conservatives, with Harper highlighting that the combat mission against ISIL in Iraq is supported by Canada’s counterparts and within the region, and is in response to a direct threat to Canada. Trudeau said that Canada has a role to play in peace and security and that Canada’s role should focus on helping to train and support local forces to fight and not lead combat missions.

There was also a lengthy debate on the polarizing Bill C-51, the Conservatives’ controversial anti-terrorism legislation.  The NDP have said that they would repeal the Bill, while the Liberals (who supported the bill initially) would repeal problematic sections and repeal others.  Elizabeth May took the bill to task for failing to confront the risk of radicalization at home, calling for it to be repealed.

This section also raised some exchanges on Canada’s response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, with calls from Mulcair to extend Russian sanction as well as the Conservative’s ongoing steadfast support for Israel, identifying two key constituencies for the Conservatives.

The Takeaway

Closing remarks for the debate could be described as a simile for the remaining campaign: Harper asked Canadians to stay the course and support the Conservatives, while Mulcair and Trudeau each laid out why they should take Harper’s job, focusing on helping the middle class and repairing the damage of the past nine years of Conservative government.  It was clear that the Liberals have also been working hard, in response to Mulcair’s strong performance in recent polls, to also differentiate themselves from the NDP, painting them as the far left. With his unequivocal emphasis on the importance of market access, the oil sands, lowering taxes for the middle class, and his criticism of the NDP’s $15 federal minimum wage, it could be said the Liberals are vying to position themselves as an alternative among disenfranchised Conservative voters. May took the opportunity, much like she did nimbly throughout the debate, to demonstrate to Canadians that the Green Party is more than one party and one issue.

While the debate was substantial, the issues discussed are perpetual issues facing the federal government, and will likely comprise significant portions of each party’s platform. There were few surprises, little opportunity for “knock out punches”, and no new policies or positions announced.

Coming out of Thursday evening, there are several outstanding questions.  Did Canadians tune in? Will this provide any campaign with momentum as they head into the last few weeks of the summer?  Will the issues debated in early August still be relevant to Canadians on October 19?

A debate five days into the campaign is unorthodox, but so is an eleven week campaign.  There are several leaders’ English debates scheduled but last night’s exchange might turn out to be the sole opportunity to see all four party leaders on one stage. In 2015, you can expect the unexpected during the campaign and it will remain to be seen whether the issues of this debate define the campaign ahead.