This election is tight — and last night's debate likely did little to change that

They came. They pitched. They argued. The federal party leaders held the first of two back-to-back debates on Wednesday — a spirited and occasionally raucous encounter in French that provided glimpses but no sustained view of the differences among them.

There were some sharp elbows on display but nothing that suggests a pivot point in the campaign

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole listens as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Leader Annamie Paul discuss a point during the federal election French-language leaders debate on Wednesday in Gatineau, Que. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

They came. They pitched. They argued.

The federal party leaders held the first of two back-to-back debates on Wednesday — a spirited and occasionally raucous encounter in French that provided glimpses but no sustained view of the differences among them.

Climate change. The cost of living. Cultural identity. The pandemic and mandatory vaccines. Justice and foreign policy. Those were the official topics for the two-hour debate. The five leaders threw in a few of their own.

Trust and integrity. Whether this election is even necessary. They were keen to talk about those things, too.

"Why did you call an election in the middle of a pandemic?" Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole demanded to know in his first exchange with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on whether vaccines should be mandatory.

"This isn't the time to be dividing people."

WATCH: O'Toole presses Trudeau on decision to call mid-pandemic election

O'Toole challenges Trudeau on calling pandemic election

3 months ago
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole asks Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau multiple times why he called an election during the pandemic. Trudeau challenges O'Toole on saying vaccines and rapid testing are the same. 1:01

"The only reason to call an election is a selfish one. To gain more power. That was not the right thing to do," added NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Trudeau — who has faced hostile protesters opposed to vaccines during campaign stops in the days leading up to Wednesday's debate — stood his ground, arguing as he has since the start of the campaign that Canadians deserve a say on how the country gets out of the pandemic.

"Viewers can see how deep the differences are in our positions on how the pandemic should be dealt with," he said.

It was one of the few sparks to emerge from a debate format that gave few opportunities for extended arguments.

O'Toole found himself on the defensive early on for releasing the cost of his party's platform just hours before the debate.

That analysis, provided by the parliamentary budget officer, clearly confirmed what O'Toole wouldn't in the first French language debate last week — that under a government led by him, the Liberals' $6 billion child care deal with the government of Quebec Premier Francois Legault would be a one-time transfer.

"We are going to help all Quebec families immediately," O'Toole said, adding he would work closely with Legault on child care. "There's going to be a transition because our plan is going to help all families in Quebec."

"He doesn't understand the first thing about child care in Quebec," Trudeau shot back. "He's going to scrap the $6 billion that would have created 37,000 new child care spots. Quebec families have been waiting for months and even years for spaces and he says no."

No knockout blow

Federal leaders' debates always come with high expectations. But it's rare for them to offer the kind of dramatic moments or turning points that can influence the outcome.

Last night's debate was no exception.

It did, however, signal that the languid pace of this summer campaign is over now.

Their messaging, their efforts to stand apart from their opponents, the occasional barbs they traded back and forth — they all amounted to an acknowledgement by the party leaders that the public opinion polls they profess to ignore are right.

This race is close. A majority government appears out of reach for the two frontrunners, Trudeau and O'Toole.  Many voters remain uncommitted ahead of Sept. 20.

That, at least, suggests the stakes tonight in the only English-language debate will be high. The challenge facing the leaders is to stand out.

WATCH: Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet on his testy exchange with Trudeau

'He may scream as many times as he wants,' Blanchet says of heated exchange with Trudeau

3 months ago
Bloc Québécois Yves-François Blanchet addresses a heated exchange that took place between himself and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during the official French-language debate. 0:29

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet proved, again, that he remains a formidable opponent in these French-language debates — needling both Trudeau and O'Toole while making his case that he and his party are the only ones who will protect the interests of Quebeckers in Ottawa.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul has spent most of this campaign in Toronto Centre, where she's hoping to win a seat on her third try. Last night, she found herself on centre stage — at the middle podium — attempting to reach voters in other parts of the country.

But she often struggled to break in during the two-hour debate inside the Canadian Museum of History across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill.

Pollster David Coletto, who heads the firm Abacus Data, said there's more value to these debates than people think, even if there's no obvious change in the polls. No knockout punch.

"You have an opportunity, unlike any other, during a campaign to speak with millions of people who are tuning in and do it in a way that allows you to contrast yourself with the other candidates on that stage," he said.

So tonight, the leaders will do it all again, in English, covering most of the same topics in front of another national audience. One more chance to seal the deal with voters with only 11 days left before they go to the polls.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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