Sound And Fury: Don Newman’s Reflections On The English Leaders’ Debate

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Bard has the title character offer this observation about what he believes to be the futility of life:

“What is life?” Macbeth harrumphs in his famous soliloquy, “life is but a poor player that walks and struts upon the stage. Full of sound and fury. Signify nothing!”

Those lines were written five-hundred years ago, but they could have been written last night to describe the English language televised debate of the current election campaign.

For two hours, six party leaders and five debate moderators in front of a small studio audience at the Canadian History Museum, and a nationwide audience watching on television and a variety of other platforms, spent their time largely trading their campaign slogans and accusations, being told to only speak one at a time.

It was the only opportunity for Canadians to see all six party leaders at the same time, including Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, whose party is only running candidates in Québec’s seventy-eight ridings and has no hope of being the next government.

But then, he wasn’t the only party leader taking part with no hope of forming a government after Canadians vote on October 21st. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier are all in the same boat. And because of all the ridings in Québec, Blanchet could finish with more seats than any of the rest in that boat.

There are only two leaders who have the possibility of being Prime Minister after the election; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who already has the job, and Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, who desperately wants the job.

For that reason their exchanges were often lively, though neither said much about the other that was new.

Mr. Scheer’s best line came when in responding to repeated charges that he would cut federal services the way Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford did provincially, after being elected in 2018. “Mr. Trudeau, you seem to be oddly obsessed with provincial politics. There is a vacancy for the Ontario Liberal leadership and if you’re so focused on provincial politics, go and run for the leadership of that party Mr. Trudeau.”

The line was obviously rehearsed, but the Conservative Leader delivered it well. Mr. Trudeau was similarly smooth when commenting on the participation of Mr. Bernier in the debate. Bernier formed the right-wing People’s Party after he lost the Conservative Leadership to Scheer, claiming the party under Scheer was not conservative enough.

“Mr. Bernier, your role on this stage tonight seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately.”

Perhaps to the surprise of some, the smoothest performer of all was the NDP Leader. At one point when Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer were arguing over climate change, Mr. Singh jumped in.

“You do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny. There is another option,” he said with a smile, referring to himself.

The debate was unique in one way. A leader predicted an election winner that was leader of another party.

In an exchange with Mr. Scheer, Elizabeth May told him:

“Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you’re not going to be prime minister. The question is going to be on a seat count if we have Mr. Trudeau in a minority or Mr. Trudeau in a majority.”

Scheer looked surprised and was briefly speechless. He then recovered and offered to bet May she was wrong.

For her part, May pleaded with the people listening to make it a minority. That way she, and maybe the NDP, would hold the balance of power and have influence running the country.

On the debate format itself, each of the five women moderating the debate handled one series of questions on a specific topic. That had a tendency to make for inconsistencies and occasional confusion.

But it also made for a lively two hours. As Macbeth described life, there was plenty of sound and fury. The results on October 21st will tell us what it signified.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.