Rivers on the first federal election debate: the winner was the guy who wasn't in the room.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

September 13th, 2019



It was an impressive demonstration of candidates expressing themselves in clear unequivocal terms on the broad range of issues before the public. At least one of the candidates was so eloquent, and spoke with such passion from the heart, it seemed as if it had been beautifully scripted in advance.

That was the debate for candidates wanting to become the next US Democratic president. The CTV/MacLeans Canadian leader’s debate, that same evening, was something else. The consensus of the pundits was that the winner was the only major leader who wasn’t there, Justin Trudeau. He was at an election campaign event in Edmonton, at a riding he is hoping to take away from the NDP incumbent.

Denaters Sept 13-19

Elizabeth May, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh debate the issues without Prime Minister Trudeau.

It might have been the antiseptic-white hospital setting or the way in which the studio lights con-tinuously featured in the images. And Paul Wells, who moderated, really should stick to his day job as a columnist for MacLeans. Ill at ease in that forum he fumbled with the questions and failed to control the debate as candidates drifted off topic and squabbled among themselves. Then there was the empty podium, which the organizers obviously thought cute, but just stood out like a sore thumb making their event look even more awkward.

The candidates, and Scheer in particular, used the venue to attack the absent PM. But if that was his objective it rang pretty hollow, as he himself came under criticism for falling back on discredited Harper era positions. Still, unsurprisingly all three leaders used the opportunity to gang up on Trudeau when the issue of SNC prosecution came up.

The Globe and Mail is at it again, reporting that former Attorney General, Jodi Wilson-Raybould, now running as an independent, had been interviewed again by the RCMP. Clearly Scheer, raising this matter, was hoping to make it Trudeau’s Hillary Clinton moment? An eleventh hour FBI investigation into Clinton’s personal email account cast sufficient doubt among Democratic voters that they allowed Trump to slip ahead and win the election.

Perhaps because expectations of his performance were low, Jagmeet Singh appeared to do reasonably well. His comments typically cited personal anecdotes of mothers with children in their arms or at their feet fretting over the high costs of prescriptions and the perils of climate change. Or he just fell into making broad generalities about policies, raising the question of his actual knowledge of those issues. But mostly he just resorted to the time-honoured and tiresome language of class struggles – the rich versus the poor.

Elizabeth May just failed to impress, especially as there is such expectation of her soaring to replace the NDP as Canada’s third party. She rode the middle ground in some cases, as for example in holding the line on expanding Canada’s universal health care system. And yet she went extreme in others, such as claiming she’d end the major B.C. LNG export project. She often seemed to be riding the fence between agreeing on many issues with both Scheer or Trudeau, perhaps hoping to draw votes from one and the other.

May kept referencing the danger of exceeding an increase of 1.5 C in global temperature, as if it were something Canada could do on its own. She also harped on about setting tougher targets as if that alone would achieve results.

An interesting exchange occurred when Andrew Scheer picked up on her promise to achieve zero carbon emissions for all households in Canada. Scheer has promised to restart the former Chretien home efficiency program that his party had cancelled shortly after gaining power back in 2006.

While Trudeau was somewhere else, it almost seemed that Scheer would have liked to join him. Ill at ease, he stood between the other two leaders like a block of wood, never breaking a smile. Speaking without passion and in generalities that rivaled the other two leaders, it was hard to imagine him as prime ministerial.

He boasted that he has the best climate action plan, but provided only aspirational detail as to how it would achieve that goal. Scheer’s climate plan has been panned by even the Globe and Mail and attacked by economists as leading to increased rather than reduced emissions. And his constant reference to expansion of resource industries, echoed back to Stephen Harper’s fixation on oil and gas exports and his disregard for the environment.

Though Scheer at one point had indicated he would not be eliminating the federal deficit, he has apparently had a change of heart as he is now promising to do so over an election cycle. Still his promises to balance the budget, cut taxes and continue health and other spending priorities sounds a lot like the impossible dream – the one Doug Ford had also promised in Ontario’s last election.

And Scheer has to be skating on thin ice, virtually accusing Trudeau of illegality in the SNC caper, when even the former attorney general said that was not the case. It is all too reminiscent of Mr. Ford accusing former premier Wynne of corruption. If Mr. Scheer really wanted to distance himself from the troubled Ontario premier he could start by changing the channel on that kind of language which smacks of desperation.

All things considered, this debate was a useful exercise in that it provided a venue for the opposition parties to expose their platforms and address what they would do differently were they to win the top honours. That would have been instructive for the viewers had there been more focus on platform detail. And it would have been useful to see exactly how the Greens and NDP differ as they struggle for 3rd place in Canadian politics.

Federal debate Sept 13 No Liberal

Jagmeet Singh, a,no show Liberal leader, Andrew Scheer and Elizabeth May.

The Liberals are now in power and despite any promises they make during the campaign will and should be running largely on their record. So Mr. Trudeau’s absence in this side-debate is less critical from that perspective. He will come before the public in the official election commission debate in early October, in addition to a special Quebec TV debate.

The Bloc Quebecois is a Quebec-only party, but Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party is national,
with candidates slated for all ridings in the country. Given that Mr. Trudeau had indicated well in advance that he would be a no-show, it is curious why Mr. Bernier wasn’t invited to fill the empty podium, or even why he wasn’t invited in the first place. It would have been instructive for prospective voters to see what Mr. Bernier, who came within a whisper of becoming Conservative leader would do were he to become PM.

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province. He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.

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6 comments to Rivers on the first federal election debate: the winner was the guy who wasn’t in the room.

  • Joe Gaetan

    Do you mean, “the guy” who reneged on Electoral Reform, or the guy, when asked about LavScam said, “The allegations in the Globe story are false”,or the guy with not one, but two ethical lapses, or the guy who apologizes for others but not himself. Just asking? Because I believe “that guy” is our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. If we are going to give him credit, why not give him credit for being clever enough to not attend and face the music.

  • Jim Barnett

    Phillip is right on and is brilliant again. Ray’s sources continue to be feces from the barnyard.

  • Stephen White

    If there was no illegality in the SNC Lavalin case why did the RCMP interview Jody Wilson-Raybould again earlier in the week? I’m sure they weren’t trading recipes for pumpkin pie so much as investigating suspected obstruction of justice behaviour by the PM and his minions. This issue is far from closed despite Trudeau’s best efforts to distance himself.

    Yes, the debate Thursday night was less than stellar. Scheer was wooden and looked ill-at-ease, and Singh kept constantly interrupting everyone and being a general nuisance. By contrast, Elizabeth May sounded reasonable, focused and pragmatic. No wonder the Green Party is quickly displacing the NDP as the voice of moderate progressive voters in the country. As for the PM passing up this debate he once again displayed the arrogance and contempt for public opinion, his critics and the media that pretty much has characterized his entire government for the past four years. Like father, like son. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  • gfraser

    Opinion Piece:

    Of course it was smart for Trudeau’s handlers to keep him away from two English debates. Without prompters or an ear piece to stop his gaffes the world would see the heir to Pierre’s throne as the inept pretty prince he is (see below).


    Ray, your myopic genuflecting to this ‘prince of errors’ is overwhelming and borders on cult-like mesmerization. Remember, Canada is still a democracy with laws that are to be adherent too no matter what your status in life is. Ray, you seem to want the current USA style of government which is partisan dictatorship at all national cost………well, we do share a leader of equal narcissism and intelligence.

    This is ‘2019’ and the truth has been amply clarified. JT is not a feminist, not a role model, not truthful, and has not kept the majority of his election promises.


  • Carol Victor

    Great analysis…Trudeau was smart to stay away from this one…poorly moderated with everyone talking over each other..showed Sheer to be a complete phoney with a rehearsed script…there is no doubt that he would cozy up to Trump if elected and take us on a very slippery slope…

  • Phillip Wooster

    Whose concensus, Ray? Yours—all I’m reading here is Liberal spin! No great surprise that most viewers see debates through the prism of confirmation bias. Here’s my take–1. the loser was Trudeau–an empty podium for an empty suit, how fitting!!!!! Of course, Trudeau is not good on his feet unless reading scripted comments undoubtedly dictated by Gerald Butts. I’m sure he’ll do better in the Commission debates where the panelists are all UNIFOR members and Trudeau has prepared answers to their questions ahead of time. So glad you brought up Hillary, Ray! 2. Scheer was composed and reserved, not an easy task with the constant interruptions that an inept moderator allowed. I would have preferred to seem him a bit more assertive; I’m sure that will change for the next debates. 3. Singh was given free rein to interrupt and argue but he showed well against Elizabeth May who was underwhelming and didn’t leave a good impression. Of course, the expectations for Singh were so low he couldn’t help but look better.

    Lastly, with regard to the RCMP investigation which is still in its infancy. I’m not surprised that you tried to “fluff this off” but in a democracy we should all be concerned about this outrage. The RCMP are trying to determine if an obstruction of justice charge is warranted in the Lavalin Scandal but here is what is the most troubling. This is a criminal offence they are now looking into; the RCMP would not be involved unless it was. But a sitting PM has been able to put himself above the law and stymie the investigation by not allowing the RCMP to interview witnesses who cabinet confidentiality has been waived—think about it a minute–an alleged criminal and his gang can prevent investigation into their criminal activities. So disappointing that you would try to excuse this unconcionable conduct.