Minority government seems likely

If Monday night’s election debate — the first and last English-language encounter of the current campaign to find its main protagonists on the same stage — results in anything, it may be to have made the possibility of a minority government more probable.

At the very least, expectations that the debate would break the Liberal-Conservative deadlock in the battle for government will likely not pan out.

With six leaders onstage — a record in a Canadian federal election — and almost as many moderators, the opportunities to size up the two men most likely to become prime minister as a result of the Oct. 21 vote were, to put it mildly, too few and far between to really set the stage for a decisive match.

Overall, viewers were treated to a cacophony that saw the various leaders spend more time speaking over each other than articulating coherent ideas. Substance was sacrificed to a cumbersome format.

Given the time constraints they were operating under, all six strove for clean clips liable to endure beyond the evening’s broadcast. They all worked hard to make their rivals’ comments unintelligible by interrupting them every step of the way.

Here are some notes on how each of the main leaders did:

Justin Trudeau: It is a rare debate that sees the incumbent emerge as the hands-down winner, and Monday night’s exercise was no exception. The Liberal leader neither dominated the exchanges nor did he spend the evening on the ropes as a result of the sustained attacks of the other leaders.

If the Liberal objective was for Trudeau to avoid walking off the set wounded, it was achieved. But if the goal was to finally put distance between the Liberal leader and the rest of the pack, it probably missed the mark.

Andrew Scheer: To watch the Conservative leader in action over the course of his maiden campaign debates has been to be reminded that he did not get much advance practice at defending policies.

Having never served in cabinet under Stephen Harper, Scheer never had to endure opposition fire in question period.

That was obvious last week when the Conservative leader emerged as the consensus loser of the French-language debate hosted by Quebec’s TVA network. He truly had a bad night last Wednesday.

A repeat of that performance in English on Monday would likely have sealed his party’s fate on Oct. 21 and, potentially, ensured the re-election of a majority Liberal government.

But Scheer limited the potential damage by spending much of the evening in his opposition comfort zone, in full-attack mode.

By comparison to last week’s French-language debate, he is unlikely to bleed support as a result of his performance on Monday.

Jagmeet Singh: As in the case of the Maclean’s and the TVA debates, the NDP leader had a good night. He was on message and took the few openings he did get to distinguish his positions from those of his rivals.

So far, Singh has benefited from every debate he has participated in and Monday’s will probably be no exception.

It is unlikely to turn what has so far been a two-way battle for government into a three-way fight, but his performance is bound to shore up the morale of his troops and keep them fighting until the votes are counted. That was not a given when the election was called.

A good night for Singh is not necessarily a great night for Green party Leader Elizabeth May. It probably won’t help that while her best hope for bringing more Green MPs to the next Parliament is in B.C., the debate in that province was broadcast, as a result of the time difference with central Canada, in late afternoon — at a time when many voters were still either at work or in traffic.

Monday’s debate also featured People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier’s first appearance on the podium. Many initially questioned the debate commission’s decision to invite him and his contribution to the exchanges is unlikely to have put the doubts to rest.

To sum up: Monday’s debate was one of Scheer’s last best chances to generate the momentum that has so far eluded his Conservative party.

With time running out, he has yet to translate a tie in national voting intentions into winning odds in the seat count.

Absent a clean win, the fact that he was still standing at the end of the debate does not mean he succeeded.

On the heels of last week’s poor debate performance in Quebec, the path to a Conservative victory is increasingly narrow.

Singh on Monday and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet last week both gave debate performances liable to solidify and expand their respective parties’ support.

As a result, with less than two weeks to go, Trudeau’s road to a second majority remains muddy.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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