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On the Campaign Trail: Leaders debate, polls, the final stretch

Local election pundits analyze the events in the last week of campaigning before election day Sept. 20
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The five federal party leaders

Federal election leaders vied for voters on a national stage with the official debates Sept. 8 and 9.

The leaders addressed topics such as affordability, climate change, Indigenous issues, leadership and foreign policy as the campaign enter the final full week.

With less than one week until election day, Sept. 20, here is what NewmarketToday’s election pundits had to say about how the leaders did on the debate stage:

Liberal riding association president Matt Gunning 

Gunning said though many people said they did not enjoy the format, he liked it.

“I thought it was a pretty lively discussion,” Gunning said. “A lot of leaders had a pretty good night in terms of their personal performance.

He said it was an opportunity for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to draw some lines in the sand about policy differences on issues like child care and climate change targets.

Gunning said he thought Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole benefited from People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier not being on the stage to attack him from the right. 

Green Leader Annamie Paul performed well but was unable to get into what makes her party’s platform distinct from the NDP, he added.

Meanwhile, he said NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is gaining from experience.

“Time and experience are really helping him become more adept in those kinds of high-pressure environments,” Gunning said, adding Singh is also helped by not being a serious threat to form a government. “I don’t think he had a lot of substance to the things he had to say.”

On their leader's performance

Gunning complimented Trudeau's performance.

“He was able to withstand the attacks on both sides,” he said. “He stood his ground.”

On the debate's impact

Gunning said both Trudeau and O’Toole had a chance to leave an impression on voters in a different way than they have been able to do so far.

“The opportunity to really speak to voters and show themselves,” he said. “I thought they both did well in that.” 

On the latest polls

He said although the Liberals faltered early in the polls over issues with Afghanistan and concerns over the fourth wave of the pandemic, voters are beginning to shift from NDP to Liberal over worries about the Conservatives getting into power.

“The wind is really at (the Liberals') backs,” he said. “The progressive vote is going to come home.”

He added voters could also be seeing the value in the Liberals' experience in pandemic management.

“I don’t think this is the time we want to spend putting someone in training.”

On issues missing in the campaign

Gunning said he would have liked to have seen more foreign policy discussions in the campaign, which focuses on domestic issues.

He said having only one official English language debate was wrong.

“It’s disgraceful,” Gunning said. “That is really poor. I think the country deserves a lot more time.”

He said he would have also liked to have seen leaders specifically address the far-right protests happening across the country related to vaccination policy.

Other highlights

Gunning said the race will come down to the urban and suburban ridings.

“These leaders seem to have spent time either going back to their base, drumming up the base with the same old talking points, but also certainly into these battleground areas."  

Longtime labour activist Ed Chudak, NDP

Chudak disparaged the debate format, which saw candidates get a set amount of time to answer questions and respond to others.

“The format was horrendous. I think the moderator was intent on being the star of the show,” Chudak said. “I don’t think it allows for sufficient or proper discourse on issues. People kept getting cut off by the moderator. I found it to be a little bit of a joke.”

On their leader's performance

Chudak said he felt positive about Singh’s performance, given the circumstances.

“He made his points though,” Chudak said, such as taxing the wealthy individuals who have been hiding money offshore in tax havens. "I think that has some resonance with the public.”

On the debate's impact

Chudak said he had thought the debate could impact votes but is less sure of that given how it played out.

“It was hard to get much out of the debate,” Chudak said. “Certainly not broad policy considerations, and that sort of thing. I was quite disappointed by it. Not by people’s performance in particular, but just the way the whole thing was set up. I thought it was a little bit of a fiasco.”

On latest polls

Chudak is expecting a minority government with a close race between the Liberals and Conservatives. He said that puts the NDP in a solid position.

“New Democrats are positioned very well to pick up a number of seats,” Chudak said. “I’m fairly happy with the campaign we’ve seen. Of course, the proof comes in the pudding in the end."

On issues missing in the campaign

Chudak said the unique circumstances of the campaign have hampered some discussion. He said there have been few local debates and no one has knocked on his door. 

“A lot of issues could have been better discussed, with more debates and more interaction with the public. It’s fairly difficult,” Chudak said. “A rather strange campaign.”

Other highlights

Chudak said he remains skeptical of the Conservative’s moderate positions and how the party would govern if put into power. 

He said Trudeau erred in calling an election and voters are questioning that.

He said he does not think the NDP will form a government but could be in a good position in a minority. 

“Singh, I think, has campaigned very well. I think he’s got more acceptance across the country. His popularity has increased.”

Public affairs and policy manager Darryl Wolk, Conservative

Wolk characterized the debate as “fiery” and considers Paul the winner.

“She performed really strong,” Wolk said, “ and landed some early blows with the Jody Wilson-Raybould issue.”

He criticized the amount of time the Bloc Québécois received, given the party runs only in Quebec.

He said Trudeau came across as defensive throughout the debate.

“He really relied on personal attacks against other leaders instead of his personal record or the future,” Wolk said. “I definitely think Trudeau lost the debate.”

On their leader's performance

Wolk said Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was calm and collected.

“He was trying to present himself as professional, friendly,” Wolk said. “On the issues around foreign affairs — China, the two Michaels, Afghanistan — he really excelled.”

On the debate's impact

Wolk said many voters have already decided who they will support going into an election, as they are loyal to a certain political party.

Meanwhile, he said most people who watch debates are journalists or political junkies. 

“I don’t think the debates are going to move the needle a whole lot,” he said. “It’s now going to come down to the ground game, more essentially, in a tight race.”

On the latest polls

Wolk said both the Liberals and Conservatives potentially are contending with vote-splitting, due to the NDP and the People’s Party of Canada. But he said the NDP support is stronger locally. 

“Certainly, the People’s Party will be a wild card, but I feel the NDP strength is strong enough that I believe (local Conservative candidate) Harold Kim is going to pull off a victory,” Wolk said. 

He said nationally, he foresees a minority government decided by the 905 area, including seats like Newmarket-Aurora. 

“Whoever wins Newmarket-Aurora is going to form the next government,” he said. "I believe Erin O’Toole is going to win a small minority.”

On issues missing from the campaign

Wolk said he enjoyed the discussion at the debate on Indigenous issues, but it was difficult to differentiate between the parties on climate change policies.

Wolk added the debate format did not lend itself well to covering certain topics. 

“Sometimes, a short opportunity to provide answers doesn't provide the depth needed to get into those issues.” 

On Conservative candidates missing local debates

The riding has had only one debate so far, hosted by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, which also featured Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill candidates. But neither Conservative candidate attended, while the rest of the parties all had representation.

Newmarket-Aurora candidate Conservative candidate Lois Brown also faced criticism in 2019 for missing an election forum.

Wolk said missing a debate could be a strategic choice weighing how many people watch them, with Conservatives perhaps feeling time is better spent meeting voters at their doors. He said interest in election coverage and events has declined for years. 

“The reality is local candidates, for the most part, have to stick to the national party platform,” Wolk said. “There’s not many people viewing the debates.”

Former Green Party candidate Walter Bauer

“I’m not a big fan of these debates,” Bauer said. “I don’t think I've ever learned very much from them.”

He said one thing that stood out was the performance of Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet.

“In the first few minutes, he was talking about how he doesn’t really care about what happens in Canada,” Bauer said. “What’s he doing in the debate?”

On their leader's performance

Bauer said he felt Paul held her own on stage.

“She did fairly well. I’ve seen other opinions agreeing with that,” he said.

But he added he would have liked to see her push more on climate change.

“I found it hard to distinguish between her position and the NDP position. They are very similar on climate change,” Bauer said. “I thought she could have made stronger points on that.”

On the debate's impact

Bauer said the only person he thinks could gain from the debate is Singh.

“Singh looked pretty comfortable compared to Trudeau or O’Toole,” he said. “So he may steal some votes from Trudeau."

But beyond that, he does not see it having a big impact.

“I don’t think it will affect anybody.”

On the latest polls

Bauer said it looks like a close race between the Liberals and Conservatives in both Newmarket-Aurora and nationally.

“It’s way too close to call. We’ll see if anybody makes a mistake,” Bauer said.

He said Trudeau could lose votes to the Bloc in Quebec over the Bill C-21 controversy, which restricts public servants from wearing religious symbols in Quebec.

As for the Greens, Bauer said he expects its voting share will decline in Newmarket from the approximately five per cent it achieved in 2019.

On issues missing in the discussion

Bauer said he would have liked to have seen more discussion during the campaign on climate change.

“It needs a lot more attention now than anything else. This is when we can act,” Bauer said. “Later on, it is going to be too late. We’ll be trying to put out fires — quite literally.”

Other Highlights

Bauer said he is noticing far fewer signs on people’s lawns compared to previous elections.

“Given there’s only a week left, I can’t believe how few signs there are out there,” he said. “I’m not sure what the cause of that is."