Citytv and Maclean’s co-hosted the first federal leadership debate Thursday, featuring Elizabeth May (Green), Andrew Scheer (Conservative) and Jagmeet Singh (NDP), and an empty podium symbolizing a certain someone’s absence. So where was Justin Trudeau? Why would the PM miss an opportunity to connect with voters? And could opting to opt out come back to bite him? Refinery29 spoke with Liberal-friendly pundit Amanda Alvaro and Conservative consultant Alise Mills to get an expert reading on the PM’s no-show.
First things first: If Trudeau wasn’t at the debate, where was he?
While the other three candidates were busy prepping their best barbs and zingers Thursday evening, Trudeau was miles (make that kilometers) away in Edmonton, speaking at a rally alongside some of his party’s key candidates and pushing his message of continued forward momentum. This was day two of the prime minister’s official campaign ahead of the Oct. 21 election.
So debates aren’t mandatory then?
No. Thursday’s debate was the first in what is sure to be a slew of leadership smack-downs. Generally there are debates that focus on special issues and interest groups (climate change, immigration, women). “Most candidates aren’t going to participate in every debate — it’s a matter of determining the cost/benefit and making strategic choices,” says Alvaro. Last week, the Liberals announced that Trudeau would not be attending the Citytv/Maclean’s debate or the Munk Debate on foreign policy.
Will he debate at all?
Yes. The PM will participate in two debates organized by the Leaders Debate Commission, happening Oct. 7 (in English) and Oct. 10 (French), and also the TVA French-language debate on Oct. 2.
Why would he miss an opportunity to face off against his opponents on TV?
There are a lot of strategic reasons that may have motivated Team Liberal to skip out, starting with opportunities to engage with voters IRL. “During such a short election campaign the primary objective is to be on the road, be on the ground, be in front of actual people talking to them one-on-one,” says Alvaro. Trudeau’s decision to opt for a rally in Edmonton over a TV appearance in Toronto may also be because the Liberals are lagging in Alberta. Still, Mills sees the whole “ground-game” messaging as a bit of a masquerade. “He wasn’t at the debate because he did not want to be held accountable for his record,” she said. “I think since [the SNC Lavalin scandal] broke, Trudeau has lost some of his swagger. I don’t think [his strategy team] have a lot of interest in the English-language debates.”
Why would French-language debates be more important?
Because the theory is in order to win the election, the Liberals have to take Quebec. Trudeau is also a Montrealer who speaks perfect French (not the case with some of his competitors). “It’s his home court,” Mills says.
Did Trudeau’s no-show benefit the other candidates?
Certainly anyone who assumed that Trudeau’s absence would prevent his opponents from tearing him a new one was sorely mistaken. “Notwithstanding the fact that they were debating each other, each of the candidates took very specific attacks on the Liberal record,” says Alvaro. This, she explains, is probably a good thing for Team Trudeau. “If you’re watching last night as a Liberal strategist, you can gather a lot in terms of the way the other leaders are going to handle various issues — strengths and weaknesses.” Mills doesn’t see it that way. “I think the Liberal strategists already have a pretty good sense of where the other leaders are coming from.” From a risk/reward analysis, Mills says they miscalculated. “Anyone who was sitting down in front of the debate last night ready to make a decision, Trudeau’s absence read like an insult.”
But are the debates even that important?
They tend to get more and more important as the election gets closer. “Most Canadians aren’t sitting down with popcorn to watch every debate, but they are seeing the headlines, which tend to drive the news cycle for at least a couple of days,” says Alvaro. Timing, she says, is key, since voters probably won’t be talking about this debate by the end of the weekend, never mind by election day. The debates that Trudeau has committed to are further down the road. “Those are right before Thanksgiving where everyone sits down with their families and discusses the election. Performances in those debates are going to be a lot more significant,” says Alvaro.
Can we talk about that empty podium?
Sure! The visual representation of the PM’s absence at Thursday’s debate provided a notable talking point (and a photo op for Elizabeth May, whose “look at me shaking the hand of an absent PM” snap was the night’s most memorable moment). “Debates may not stick in people’s minds, but images do,” says Mills. “That photo is worth a thousand words.” (Needless to say, none of those words are pro-Trudeau.) But Alvaro says the empty podium had an unexpected and opposite effect. “I think when you look at how a lot of Canadians responded to the debate, there is this sense that something was missing,” she says. “I think it made people wish that Trudeau was there. He has a presence and a charisma that the other candidates don’t have.”
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