It’s hard to imagine a majority government

On the heels of the last French-language debate of the campaign, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s hopes for a victory on Monday may hang by little more than an NDP thread.

By the same token, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s hopes for a second majority are fading fast and — at this relatively late stage in the campaign — the party’s re-election to government is anything but in the bag.

Neither of the main contenders is where it would have wanted to be less than a week from the vote.

Both have been scrambling for a much-needed second wind. They did not find it on the leaders’ podium last Thursday evening.

Coming out of the debates, the Conservative leader sports the most visible wounds.

Scheer participated in four debates, one more than Trudeau, and he and his war room claimed victory in each of them. Few others saw it that way.

The consensus among more independent observers was that, on his best nights, the Conservative leader neither helped nor hurt his cause, but that he decisively lost the French-language debate hosted by Quebec’s TVA network last week.

In its aftermath, the Conservatives dropped to a distant third place in Quebec, well behind the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals.

It would have taken more than an average performance on Scheer’s part in Thursday’s debate to make up for a drop of this magnitude.

As it turns out, he did no more than hold his own.

And while that was a net improvement on his performance the week before, it is unlikely to be enough to bring the Conservatives back in the game in Quebec.

For that to happen, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet would have had to stumble badly. His rivals did kick the Bloc’s tires with more vigour than on the previous debates, but by all indications, they failed to deflate them.

While the attacks on the Bloc’s relevance were the focus of much of the debate coverage in English, they barely registered in the French-language reporting.

From a Quebec perspective, the argument that the Bloc is not a valid option because it will not have a seat at the government table is little more than a variation on the contention that a vote for the Greens or the New Democrats is — for the same reason — a wasted one.

(As an aside, the high point of the debate for many francophone viewers was the poignant question put to the leaders by an elderly woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who sought assurances that the assisted death law would be liberalized. Trudeau promised to rewrite it within six months of the Liberals returning to power, while Scheer was noncommittal.)

The Conservatives went into the campaign looking to gain ground in Quebec. They may have to consider themselves lucky if they manage to keep the dozen seats Scheer inherited from Stephen Harper.

At this point, Quebec is more likely to split the bulk of its support between the Liberals and the Bloc than to divide it four or five ways.

With Canada’s second-largest province potentially poised to take as many as half of its seats out of the battle for government, the victor on Monday stands to be determined by the outcome of scores of closely fought battles in the rest of the country.

Fresh from positive reviews of its leader’s performance — particularly in the English-language debate — Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has become the wild card of the election.

If he is to snatch a victory out of the jaws of defeat, Scheer needs the New Democrats — and to a lesser degree, the Green party — to cut the legs from under the Liberals on his party’s behalf, especially in Ontario and British Columbia.

In Atlantic Canada, the New Democrats are almost certainly too far behind to make a big difference to the result.

Ditto in Quebec, where success for Singh would likely amount to hanging onto a handful of seats.

That being said, it would be risky to overstate the NDP’s potential to split the so-called progressive vote in favour of the Conservatives.

In Ontario, for instance, a Leger poll done after Monday’s English-language debate showed NDP support hovering at or around its 2015 election mark.

Still, under just about any configuration, it is becoming hard to see where either the Liberals or Conservatives could find the seats required to cross into majority territory.

Post-debates and subject to the last stretch of campaigning, the more likely outcomes currently come down to a Liberal minority government dependent for its survival on the New Democrats and the Greens, or a Conservative one that depends on the Bloc Quebecois.

If one had to name the argument that has been most advanced by the debates, it is the case for putting the next federal government on a tight leash.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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