For a while we could pretend the Liberal leadership debates were going to effect the outcome of the race. It was just over a month ago that Martha Hall Findlay jabbed Justin Trudeau about his privileged upbringing, prompting many to wonder if this would be the turning point. A few weeks ago, all eyes were on the Trudeau-Garneau exchange, after the astronaut badgered the frontrunner over his lack of policy and substance.
Yesterday, everyone knew that what happened in Montreal would have little bearing on the outcome of a race which has already been decided. For a press corps who covers politics like sporting events, this was like sitting through the third period of a blowout – the signs of boredom were visible on Twitter, and their questions to the candidates in post debate scrums were essentially variations of “why aren’t you dropping out?“.
In response to said question, Deborah Coyne conceded she couldn’t win, but re-iterated the importance of debating ideas.
Indeed, if you looked beyond the sport and spectacle of it, there was real substance to be gleamed from yesterday’s debate.
In addition to what seem to have become the compulsory debate topics of pot legalization and supply management, there were meaningful exchanges on C-54, CIDA, open nominations, and the retirement age. There weren’t a lot of sound byte zingers, but for a party trying to figure out what it stands for, these were topics that needed to be discussed. Martha Hall Findlay and Deborah Coyne had a great exchange on education, identifying problems, quoting figures, and offering solutions. Later, it would be Findlay and Murray weighing the pros and cons of pipelines. And everyone got to have their say about co-operation with the Greens and NDP. While I’m not a co-operation proponent, it’s a debate the party needs to have, and it’s important for voters to know exactly where the frontrunner stands.
On that question, there was no doubt. Trudeau initiated the debate with Murray, and promptly dismissed co-operation as a “single minded, win-at-all-costs” idea that would remove choices from voters and leave Mulcair as PM. He, quite rightly in my opinion, argued that voters would not respond to a “hodge podge coalition” whose only uniting message was that they weren’t Stephen Harper. In the NDP leadership race, Mulcair’s victory slammed the orange door shut on co-operation, and it is now assured that Trudeau’s will have the exact same effect on the red door.
Another issue the Liberal Party needs to sort out is the “Quebec question”, especially in light of new Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard’s musings this week. And once again, the next Liberal leader left no doubts where he stood. After touching on the topic in a break out debate with Martin Cauchon, Trudeau tossed out his prepared closing statement to revisit the issue. He talked of moving past “old squabbles and quarrels”, arguing we’ve spent too long trying to buy off Quebec rather than asking Quebecers to be at the table building the future of Canada.
Trudeau’s detractors will dismiss this as more “hopey changey” baffle-gab that sounds pretty but means nothing. However, in the process of gabbing, Trudeau said “non” to another round of constitutional talks and re-iterated his support for the Clarity Act. More importantly, he said it in language voters can relate to and feel good about – something Jack Layton was a master of, but Michael Ignatieff could never quite pull off. In two years, Trudeau will need to debate Thomas Mulcair on this very topic, so the practice was helpful.
Indeed, if this leadership race has been nothing more than a training exercise for Justin Trudeau, it’s training that will serve him well very soon.