OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to call an election two years early did not go as planned.
Polls have consistently shown a decline in voter support for his Liberal Party and an increase in support for its nearest rivals, the Conservatives, resulting in a statistical tie between the parties.
The majority of the 36-day campaign, the shortest allowed by law, took place during Canada’s all-too-brief summer, when many voters’ minds were elsewhere. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, where Canadian troops fought, further diverted public attention.
So, for Mr. Trudeau and his opponents, particularly Conservative Erin O’Toole, this week’s debates in each of Canada’s official languages were critical opportunities to define the campaign before Election Day, Sept. 20.
Mr. Trudeau faced not only Mr. O’Toole, who is leading his party in an election for the first time, but also Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party; Annamie Paul, the leader of the Green Party; and Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois, a regional party that supports Quebec’s independence. With equal time allotted to each of the five leaders, it was difficult for any of them to break through with a detailed message.
The French-language debate on Wednesday was frequently focused on Quebec-related issues. Because English is spoken by three-quarters of Canadians, the debate on Thursday in that language was deemed more important.
Trudeau struggled to justify his pandemic election.
Mr. Trudeau’s opponents repeatedly chastised him in both debates for calling what they saw as an unnecessary election in the midst of the pandemic. During the French-language debate, the topic came up 13 times.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals failed to secure a majority of seats in the House of Commons in 2019. This forced him to rely on votes from opposition parties, usually the New Democrats, to pass legislation, and it also allowed the opposition parties to pool their votes in committees to address issues that were embarrassing to the government.
Mr. Trudeau stated that he needed a new mandate with a majority in order to quickly implement pandemic recovery measures. His opponents, on the other hand, have repeatedly pointed out that none of Mr. Trudeau’s major goals have been thwarted in the last two years, despite the fact that some important bills have been delayed and then died with the call for an election.
In the Thursday debate, Mr. O’Toole questioned Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call the election at a critical juncture in efforts to repatriate Canadians in Afghanistan and assist Afghans who had worked for the Canadian military.
Mr. O’Toole stated, “You put your own political interests ahead of the well-being of thousands of people.” “You should not have called this election, Mr. Trudeau; you should have finished the job in Afghanistan.”
A complex format and a crowded stage limited debate.
The structure of the two-hour debate was complicated. The moderator, Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit polling organisation, asked questions written by a committee, as well as questions posed via video by members of the public and journalists on the site.
Ms. Kurl diligently enforced rules that prevented the candidates onstage from speaking out of turn or responding to questions that were not directed at them. There were no closing remarks.
According to Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, the formula worked against Mr. Trudeau, who was constantly targeted by the four other leaders, and aided Mr. O’Toole.
“I think O’Toole wanted to be able to talk about his climate plan in 30 seconds and then move on to another subject,” Professor Bratt said. “The formula didn’t give Trudeau enough time to delve into some of O’Toole’s flaws.”
However, voters were the debate’s clear losers, according to Professor Bratt.
“If you were paying attention to the election for the first time tonight, you were not well served,” he said.
Climate change and Indigenous issues got their due.
Climate change, in particular, stood out as a concern, though no leader made a compelling case that his or her party offered the best solution, according to Cara Camcastle, a political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.
“It’s encouraging to see that all of the leaders believe it’s an important issue,” she said. “But none of them have our own solutions.”
Mr. Trudeau has been repeatedly chastised, particularly by Mr. Singh, for the rise in carbon emissions in Canada during each of the prime minister’s six years in office. Mr. Trudeau responded that his government’s climate policies, including the implementation of a national carbon price, had put Canada on track to not only meet but also exceed its emissions commitment under the Paris Agreement, which has a 2030 deadline.
Reconciliation with Indigenous people received unusually high attention, thanks in part to the organizer’s themed approach to the debate.
While the other leaders criticised Mr. Trudeau’s record — he has made Indigenous issues a top priority — they all agreed with his position that the process of replacing the 19th-century laws that govern Indigenous people must be led by their communities, not the government.
Guns and child care were largely absent in the English debate.
Mr. O’Toole’s proposal to scrap a Trudeau-era programme in which several provinces provide child care for ten Canadian dollars or less per day in exchange for a tax credit was prominent in the French debate but was largely ignored on Thursday.
Similarly, Mr. O’Toole’s reneging on an earlier promise to lift Mr. Trudeau’s ban on 1,500 different types of assault-style semiautomatic rifles received little attention.
The verdict: ‘A meaningless waste of time’?
Professor Bratt and Dr. Camcastle both stated that they did not believe the two debates would give shape to what had been a largely shapeless campaign with no clear issue — aside from Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call it.
Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, an Ottawa-based polling firm, provided a blunt assessment of Twitter.
“I’ll spare you the speculation about who won, who lost, and what impact,” he wrote. “It was a pointless squandering of time. Perhaps the most vacuous and tiresome debate in Canadian political history.”