A real battle at the foreign policy debate

The leaders all came out swinging with the sharpest disagreements of this campaign. But did they actually settle anything?
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper trade words during the Munk Debate on foreign affairs, in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper trade words during the Munk Debate on foreign affairs, in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Monday’s national leaders debate in Toronto was the most unusual of the four so far: three leaders on a big stage in a huge hall holding 3,000 paying spectators; speaking French or English as they pleased; on a topic area—foreign policy—that has often strained Canadians’ attention spans. It went very well. Its success further validates the once-heretical notion that election debates needn’t remain the exclusive province of a self-appointed college of broadcast-network cardinals.

Rudyard Griffiths, whose Munk Debates have adorned Toronto’s intellectual life for years now, was the most discreet moderator any of these debates has seen, and though he can be proud of the result, all the participants did take advantage of him a few times. There were shouting matches, the most memorable a long and bitter spat between Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair over whether it’s proper to criticize Pierre Trudeau these days. There was illicit applause from the audience. A surprising amount of it went to Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives cannot be expecting to win many ridings within walking distance of Roy Thomson Hall. But every leader had a rule-bending faction in the audience.

Good. Rules of debate decorum are made to be bent, and if heat exceeded light sometimes it was because there was a lot to get heated about. Anyone who skipped this debate because “foreign policy is boring” missed some of the sharpest disagreements of this campaign. Stephen Harper’s opponents reduced his work in the Arctic to “summer photo ops” and his work on global maternal and child health to an anti-abortion gimmick, in my opinion wilfully denigrating good work from this government in both fields. Justin Trudeau delivered a solid, and I think better-aimed, rebuttal to Harper for treating Israel as a “domestic football” by constantly implying Israel has any enemy in Parliament.

Mulcair accused Trudeau of supporting things he hasn’t read, and, for the second time in as many debates, of sounding witty only when some Liberal puppetmaster’s hand is up his rear. It is tiresome of Mulcair, whose sinking fortunes began to turn around when he replaced unseasoned staff with professionals seven months ago, to constantly mock other politicians for having staff. Tiresome and awesomely off-topic every time he tries it. For his part, Trudeau accused Mulcair of not wanting to debate secession rules at the Maclean’s debate. I attended that debate, and I’m quite sure Mulcair was not asked about secession rules before Trudeau bushwhacked him in a debate segment on another matter entirely.

So they were all chippy. Did they settle much? On one big issue, amazingly, no: the debate featured no extended exchange over the place of niqabs in citizenship ceremonies. I suspect Mulcair was hugely relieved. Any two hours where he can avoid talking about his differences with Harper on the niqab issue, which have rocked his campaign perhaps irreparably in Quebec, must be good hours.

On the broader question, the utility of military force against ISIS, I believe Harper remains on stronger ground than his Liberal and NDP opponents. Certainly it’s distinctive ground: they must split the pacifist vote with each other and Elizabeth May’s Greens, while Harper has only one strange bedfellow in supporting armed participation: the Bloc Québécois’ Gilles Duceppe. Well, that’s if we’re only counting domestic politics. Internationally, Harper is on the same wavelength as Barack Obama, François Hollande and David Cameron. That makes the present campaign in Iraq and Syria very different from George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and strengthens Harper’s political hand substantially. As we have seen in recent polls.

Mulcair was accused in some post-debate analysis of being lethargic. He walks a narrow, perhaps increasingly frustrating line: if he lets his temper or his passions flare, he risks alienating the skittish next voter who has never voted NDP before. He must mimic the “No-drama Obama” stance that won the current U.S. President two terms: more calm and less combative than his most ardent supporters would like, because he can too easily be tarred as “angry” for displaying normal human emotion.

But frankly, with each passing day Mulcair has to worry a little less about that next voter who might be tempted to vote NDP for the first time. He will soon have to start worrying about keeping voters who did vote NDP last time, and maybe about those who’ve done it often. His campaign is in public-opinion doldrums, nowhere more so than in Quebec. This helps explain why he put a question to Harper from the head of Quebec’s largest dairy-farm union collective, on the strength of Harper’s support for the supply management scheme that simplifies life for Quebec dairy farmers. Mulcair has to show himself as the defender of Quebec consensus on a few files, if he is to stem the erosion in his voter support there.

Will it work? Will two hours of peace from the niqab issue stabilize the NDP in Quebec? Will angry Trudeau continue to make gains over doesn’t-dare-be-angry Mulcair, and will Harper continue to astonish by building a lead over them both? Beats me. Every prediction I’ve made during this long campaign has been wrong. One reason it’s turning into one of the great campaigns in Canada’s history.