TORONTO - As a televised debate, the first of two in the French language, Wednesday’s was a good sparring round. The moderator struck me as model for other subsequent moderators to emulate. He kept the debate going, from topic to topic, allowing the viewing audience to assess the debaters without allowing things to lapse into tedious, nonsensical repetition of talking points.
On the positive side, the two Anglophones (Scheer and Singh) exhibited and impressive command of the French language, even if they were occasionally halting in their delivery. The other two (Blanchet and Trudeau) are native Francophones who were speaking to their audience.
On the content side, one wonders if there is anything substantive gripping the attention of the Quebecois or whether the election is little more than a transition to the next segment of a soap opera distraction in an otherwise blasé existence.
The answer is probably negative. The format allowed for some poignant, probing questions on economic issues and Canada’s role in the world, but the candidates seemed determined to stay focused on personal matters.
As I said, it was a warm-up match. Singh was probably happy to have been invited and wanted to show he belonged, taking the opportunity to criticize Trudeau for talking a good game but for doing little. That was the extent of his “zingers”. He promised to fight for the average working man and woman.
Blanchet’s command of the French language permitted him to project a professorial, ideological, almost condescending demeanour – it could not have been his intent – towards fellow debaters, without once coming to grips with the inherent inconsistency of representing a separatist constituency in a federal state. The others “let him off the hook”.
Trudeau’s advisors clearly counselled ignoring Blanchet and Singh while attacking Scheer with positions on sexualized politics and guilt-by-association references to Ford, Kenney and Harper. For a while, Trudeau came across as the “hungry leader of the Opposition” charging forward to replace the incumbent Prime Minister.
The incongruencies of the tactics were soon obvious. He, not Scheer, is the Prime Minister whose job is on the line.
His own deflection of the issues made him appear glib. He has a better narrative in his arsenal than what came across last night. He’ll need to master it for the next two debates.
For his part, Scheer generally kept his cool under attack. He must have been gloating within, relishing the attention and enjoying “defending the Conservative record” as a result. He revealed the strategy unfolding with his direct attack on Trudeau’s weak – ethical - flank when called Trudeau a “hypocrite”.
The only candidate who has two election- campaign jets, he said, “one for himself and one for his costumes and canoes”. The next debates promise to be scrappier versions of last night.