The race for second place – the Montreal debate

The final debate with the six remaining candidates walking into the workroom and seeing the message that David Bertschi left for them on the mirror in lipstick – just kidding! Only in a perfect universe would the Liberal leadership race play out like RuPaul’s Drag Race. No, instead, all six were on stage in Montreal, with a debate format of opening statements, three-person debates and a series of one-on-ones, before closing remarks. And because only six candidates remain and not nine, it allowed for slightly longer exchanges and for a somewhat more focused debate.

With Garneau now out of the race and no longer in the top three, there was a sense that the race for second place between Martha Hall Findlay and Joyce Murray intensified, and had one of the strongest exchanges of the debate. When Murray tried to go after Hall Findlay over the Northern Gateway pipeline and accused her of being a sop for the oil industry, Hall Findlay fiercely fought back, not in favour of that pipeline in particular but of the need for market access, of pipelines in all directions and of the benefits that the sector provides for the country as a whole. And yeah, she knocked that out of the park. Later on, up to and including their respective closing statements, they also went after one another over Murray’s policy of “electoral cooperation.” Whereas Murray touted the fact that Elizabeth May decided not to run a Green candidate in the Labrador by election in order to ensure a Liberal victory, Hall Findlay insisted that by crunching the numbers nation-wide, electoral cooperation would result in a Thomas Mulcair victory. It should also be noted that for both her opening and closing statements, Murray read them off in French rather than delivering them off-the-cuff, and she didn’t speak with any particular sense of passion or conviction – something Trudeau did and cleaned up with.

As for the bottom three, I’ll make a particular note of Deborah Coyne first, in that she has basically conceded defeat – she said as much in the scrums afterward, that she knows she’s not going to win, but she wanted to be in the race to ensure that there were ideas debated, that she was in it for the principles and the mission that she saw was missing from the party. In fact, it was noted that during the debates, she didn’t ask anything designed to score any political points, but rather for the sake of getting a meaningful answer. And yet, this said, this sense of honesty in defeat fully on the table, her performance wasn’t in the bottom two. That was left up to Martin Cauchon and Karen McCrimmon to fight out. McCrimmon held her own against Joyce Murray on the issue of “cooperation,” and laying out strategy and talking in those particular terms, but she once again got hopelessly lost in other answers that didn’t make any sense, such as talking about “balance” when the question was about whether or not there should be a rule about a candidate living in a riding for six months before they can run. (Trudeau, incidentally, vowed open nominations in all 338 ridings – including his own – which may not be popular with caucus but which is one of those things that needs to happen if our system of Responsible Government is to count for anything). As for Martin Cauchon, he was at his strongest in this debate, possibly because the debate was largely in French and it was more of his home turf of Quebec, but even then, he too got lost in some particularly hopeless responses. For example, he went on at length about how Canada has a lot of regions, and that’s important, he’s thought about this. Um, okay. And? He and Trudeau also got into a competition about their competing visions of Quebec in Canada, and Trudeau expounded upon this in his closing statement – entirely off the cuff and forceful. And that it’s taken Cauchon until the final debate to actually have a worthwhile performance is too little too late.

And so, in the end, RuPaul called McCrimmon and Cauchon to the stage. “I’m sorry my dears, but you are up for elimination,” she declared. “The time has come for you to debate for your life. Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.” Just kidding – there were no eliminations as there should have been. But it’s now a race for second place, and positioning themselves in a theoretical Trudeau-led front bench – either government or opposition – following the next election. We just need to survive the big candidate’s showcase before voting begins in a couple of weeks’ time.