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Opinion: Thursday night debate highlights prime minister's weaknesses

The federal election is on Sept. 20.
Canadians head to the polls on Sept. 20.

With his job to lose, Justin Trudeau dug deeply and desperately into the defence of his six-year record Thursday onstage with four other party leaders. Nothing he did really helped, quite a lot hurt.

The worst side of Trudeau emerges when he is triggered. Time and time again in the two-hour English-language debate, it happened and happened.

Faster talking. Interrupting. Mic-Hogging. Hectoring.

It was a disappointing night if you were hoping that the Liberal leader would arrest his party’s slide and his personal slump in popularity. It must also be disappointing to Trudeau to have thrown his life into the pandemic management and recovery and have little political currency today to show for it.

He was hoping that currency would grant him a frictionless path to a majority.

Instead, he has found over the last three weeks that Canadians are not buying the cynical ploy of an election when the country is immersed in apprehension about a virus that even science cannot subdue.

He found Thursday, only too clearly at times, that six years builds a lot of political baggage, particularly when the ambitions are oversized, and that it is only too easy to be called on it, and he was.

On appeasement of China, on mitigating climate change, on fumbling reconciliation, on sexual harassment in the military, on the rationale for an election and on abandoning Afghanistan, Trudeau was no better than second best on the issues he ought to master, mostly near the back of the pack. On the economy and accountability, he had nothing to offer.

He woke up Thursday night at the Canadian Museum of History, a short drive across the bridge from his Ottawa home, and it was a world apart from his plans.

He recognized, probably too late now, that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and not Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, is the leader mowing his lawn and swiping his support – so Trudeau turned his sights to the left, but found no small foe able to give back more than he got.

All O’Toole had to do was keep his cool, exude the disposition of someone who can take the reins without taking the country off a cliff, and let Singh take the lead in deflating Trudeau’s balloon. The two main opponents to Trudeau did not digress from that script nor take each other on, suggesting they’d be willing compatriots in a minority government of their own. Certainly, Singh and Trudeau burned each other’s bridges all night, so the preservation of that coalition will take quite the crawl-down from both.

There were two ingredients we could have used: Green Leader Annamie Paul in better organizational condition to build nationally upon her solid performance, and inclusion and exposure of People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier to alert the country to extreme views that are ignored at our peril. Bloc Québecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet lost anyone with sense when he compared the colonial French to the Indigenous First Nation. 

Debates are more about assailing your opponent’s perceived weaknesses than in aggrandizing your perceived strengths. Trudeau is in top form when he is more classical music than jazz, paying attention to the sheet music; when his acting gets spontaneous and improvisational, he takes on a child-like eagerness to please or a professorial insistence to lecture.

Thursday, it may have cost him his job, for even if he wins a second minority government, his party won’t dare let him stay in the batter’s box to take a possible third strike at full governance. His assumptions, backed by polls only a month ago, was that he could deliver four more years of Liberal government. Today, there could be less than a fortnight before it changes.

Of course, the nastiest times are ahead. No government, Conservative or Liberal, has gone quietly in memory.

Ahead are new commercials, uglier messages, more intensity in exploiting the crevices of fear that often work in politics. Maybe it will salvage a Liberal lead. More probably it will reveal that this is not politics done differently, so it is not worth saving.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.