Wednesday evening, the first of two debates featuring all four of the main parties on the federal level (plus Elizabeth May from the Green Party) took place. As usual, one of the two debates is in French and the other in English. For those less familiar with Canadian politics, the French debate is essentially geared toward Quebec, where 85% of the population speaks French as a first language. I'll first start with a general impression and then will evaluate all five leaders individually.
For our American readers, I would compare yesterday's debate with the debates that you saw in the primaries in both American parties: Cloudy and lacking clear direction. In my opinion, there's just no way that voters can get to know the candidates and their policies better in a forum where there can be almost no dialogue between front runners.
Quite frankly, I really don't understand what Elizabeth May was doing there. There has never been an elected Green MP in the House as her party polls below 10%. And on top of all that, her French is terrible, terrible. So terrible in fact, that a vast majority of Francophones with whom I watched the debate could not understand what she was saying. All she did was slow down the debate when it, at times, became interesting.
Now let's take a look at how the leaders performed, from best to worst:
- Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois: In my opinion, Mr. Duceppe came out on top. And it seems that this opinion is shared by most Quebecers, as a CROP poll released this morning shows that 54% of Quebecers rate Mr. Duceppe's performance as "excellent" or "very good," compared with Mr. Harper's 18%. He put Mr. Harper on the defensive on cultural funding, the environment and on personal-attack tactics used by the Tories. He clearly was the most experienced of all debaters (this was his 12th federal debate!).
Two negatives for Mr. Duceppe though: first, his attack on youth judiciary reform fell flat as Mr. Harper defended himself well. Second, he did not directly speak in favor of Quebec's independence, which he should have done to energize his base for the last two weeks of the campaign. 8.5/10
- Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party: With the Liberal polling at its worst for many years in Quebec, expectations were low for Mr. Dion. He actually exceeded them by far; I would say he was the most impressive of all five leaders expectations-wise. Of course, as is the case for Mr. Duceppe, the fact that the debate took place in French gave him an edge on Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton. He put Mr. Harper on the defensive on gun control, the environment and the economy. He probably did not convince Bloc or Tory voters in Quebec, but he made sure that core Liberal constituencies in Quebec would go out to vote on October 14. 8/10
- Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative party and incumbent Prime Minister : Mr. Harper clearly was the man to beat yesterday (and most likely will be tonight in the English debate) as the four other leaders pounded him relentlessly on cultural funding, the environment and the economy. He managed to remain calm and fended off most of these attacks with some success. He was at his best when defending himself from Mr. Duceppe's attack on youth judiciary reform, but he clearly was off track when responding to the Bloc leader's attack on the dirty politics played by the Tories in Quebec. The fire-breathing reformist that he was in the '90s clearly stayed home yesterday, as Mr. Harper projected the image of a moderate, center-right leader, although his adversaries did not hesitate to remind voters that Mr. Harper would have gone to Iraq with the Americans had he been PM in 2003. 7/10
- Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party: Mr. Layton continued playing the Mr. Nice Guy card yesterday evening. A recent poll showed that he is considered to be the most "sexy" of all leaders, and yesterday's debate confirmed it. He wanted to present himself as the alternative to Mr. Harper, a point he did make in the first half of the debate. On the second half though, he was directly attacked by Mr. Dion many times over, who portrayed him as an irresponsible socialist. I don't believe Mr. Layton fended off these attacks well. Verdict: by going it all-out against Mr. Harper, he opened himself to attacks from Mr. Dion and it hurt him. 5/10
- Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party: Hats off for just succeeding in showing up. But her performance was bad - she did not show any clear understanding of issues other than the environment, especially regarding health care and Quebec-Canada relations. Most of her attacks fell flat as nobody wanted to debate with her. Also, she loses most of her points because French-speaking voters, the ones who were listening yesterday, did not understand most of what she was saying. Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton are not completely fluent in French, but at least they are understandable. Ms. May was not. 2/10
Tune in for tonight's English debate at 9 p.m., if the Palin-Biden faceoff happens to be boring.