In campaign's first week, party leaders hone their message and style

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Image: Screenshot/Maclean's/Youtube

The election campaign has been on, officially, for a week now and we're getting a sense of how the leaders and their parties have decided to present themselves to voters. 

We got lots of helpful signals in the first debate -- the unofficial one -- sponsored by Maclean's magazine and Toronto-based Citytv. It took place on the second night of the campaign and set the tone -- at least for the Green, Conservative and NDP leaders. The Liberal leader chose not to take part.

From the outset, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was not only small-c conservative in his policy prescriptions, he assumed a cautious and conservative demeanour as well. 

Scheer wants to present a reassuring and non-threatening face to voters, who still have bad memories of the divisive Harper years -- not to mention the tens of thousands of Ontarians who are experiencing extreme buyers' remorse with the Doug Ford Ontario Conservative government.

Federal Conservatives never mention Ford's name, and the Ontario premier is staying well out of the limelight during the campaign. But federal Conservative policy prescriptions almost perfectly mirror those of the Ontario Conservatives.  

Ford promised to radically reduce government spending, without, miraculously, cutting jobs or essential services. It would have been a miracle, indeed, if it were possible. Ontarians who send their children to school or use health services or speak French or have children with autism have learned, quite quickly, that there are no miracles.

Scheer promises not only to reduce the federal deficit to zero in short order, but actually goes a step further than Doug Ford. Scheer will make the deficit-cutting job more daunting for himself by also significantly cutting taxes. 

The federal Conservative leader says he can, somehow, do all that without touching essential services. Some people still believe in miracles. 

In the debate, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was quick to remind voters of the Ford record. If you want to understand what Conservatives really intend when they say they will cut taxes, Singh told viewers, just look at what the Ontario Conservatives have been up to. 

Singh stayed on message; May was candid and spontaneous

It was a good moment for Singh, one of many. Usually debates produce no clear winner, but, for this one, most mainstream media commentators gave the win to Singh. 

They liked the fact that Singh took a disciplined, focused approach, repeatedly emphasizing the fact that the NDP is for hardworking people who have not had a fair shake, and not for the wealthy and powerful who have been the main beneficiaries of "massive loopholes and tax benefits everyday people do not have."

Singh practised what political professionals call message control. Whatever the question, he always pivoted to his central talking points. Better yet, he leavened his simple and clear messages with homey anecdotes about Canadians he had met who are suffering from lack of fully funded health care or good jobs or decent housing. 

The rule that leaders must stay on message has become such an article of faith in the business of politics that, consciously or not, journalists and opinion mongers have bought into it. They give their highest marks to politicians who have learned to follow their back room advisers' and coaches' advice, who stick to what we used to call their "cassette" of talking points, and avoid taking risks that could result in damaging gaffes.

Green Leader Elizabeth May is anything but a message-control candidate. She says whatever comes into her mind at the moment. 

While Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer kept slipping in their parties' slogans -- "in it for you" for the NDP and "time for you to get ahead" for the Conservatives -- Elizabeth May never once uttered the Green slogan. For the record, it is: "Not left. Not right. Forward together." Rumour has it the Green leader is not particularly fond of those anodyne and content-less words and only agreed to them on the condition she did not have to utter them on the campaign trail.

Unlike the other two leaders, when asked a question in the televised debate, any question, Elizabeth May did not try to pivot to canned talking points. She actually tried to answer.

Even when Maclean's Paul Wells threw in a topic from way out in the outer outfield, May took it seriously and answered spontaneously and candidly. 

During the debate segment on foreign policy, Wells tried to trip Scheer up by raising the Conservative's one-time support of the Brexit cause, and asking if he still stuck by that view. 

Scheer virtually ignored the question. Instead he repeated his critique of Trudeau's foreign-policy record, which, Scheer claimed, consists of clowning around in India and giving up too much in trade negotiations with Donald Trump. 

Singh purported to address the Brexit issue, but only did so to say the EU was an example of a fair-trade arrangement that took into account workers' as well as corporate interests. He added that he does not believe the trade deals Canada has signed are similarly fair to "everyday Canadians." 

May insisted on candidly telling us exactly what she thinks about Brexit. She called it a "tragedy for the British people" and excoriated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for defying the will of the U.K. Parliament. The Green leader went so far as to argue that the Brexit referendum was "won through deceit."

Those were pretty impolitic things to say about the internal politics of a close ally, however true they might be. May chose to talk about Johnson and the Brexit issue as though she were chatting with friends, not standing on a stage, on national television. That is her style, and she is not likely to change it, whatever her backroom folks tell her.

When to criticize Trump, and Scheer plays the Israel card

While we're on the subject of foreign leaders, at one point in the debate the NDP leader did, quite deliberately, attack one such leader: U.S. President Donald Trump. 

May had opened the door for Jagmeet Singh when she accused the Conservatives of having a foreign policy that slavishly follows Trump's. 

Singh then jumped in. He pivoted to a critique of both Trudeau and Scheer for failing to clearly take on the Trump administration's policy of "ripping kids from their mothers' arms." Both major parties have shown weakness vis-à-vis the U.S. on that front, the NDP leader said. 

It would have been interesting to hear the Liberal leader on that point.

Quite understandably, Trudeau, who is the prime minister and not leader of a third party, has been careful about taking on Trump, publicly. He knows how vicious and vindictive the U.S. president can be. He has to protect Canadian economic interests. But, to be fair, the Liberal leader did, at least obliquely, express some dismay at the notion of separating children from their parents, without mentioning Trump by name. What would he say, now, if asked the question in a debate?

Scheer, for his part, totally ignored the Trump issue and turned to an issue that must have had most viewers scratching their heads in puzzlement. He attacked the Canadian government for financially supporting UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Organization for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East. 

UNRWA was set up in 1949 to provide services for Palestinians displaced by the creation of the state of Israel. Its current role is to provide health, educational and social services to the millions of people living in the occupied territories. 

The Trump administration, egged on by its ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, decided to withdraw funding from UNRWA, and Scheer wants Canada to follow suit. In the debate, Scheer said UNRWA supports terrorism and foments antisemitism. 

May vigorously disputed this view. 

She told Scheer she had been to Palestine with a parliamentary group and saw the good works UNRWA has done. The Green leader also she said she witnessed the damage wrought by what she called Israel's "illegal activities." May added that she is "foursquare for Israel," but thinks Netanyahu's policies are dangerous and do not serve the true interests of his country. 

NDP Leader Singh did not get a word in edgewise here. While he might be more circumspect than May in taking on Israel -- the NDP has had some fairly acrimonious internal debates on this issue -- he would, no doubt, have argued that de-funding a UN agency, which all of our allies save Trump's U.S. support, is a terrible idea. 

There is method in Scheer's seeming madness in bringing up the obscure issue of UNRWA. It is part of a strategy of electoral micro-targeting. While most media ignored that part of the debate, it is worth noting that the Canadian Jewish News did a full piece on it.

Scheer was aiming his comments at the handful of urban seats where Jewish votes might make a difference. In 2011, the Harper Conservatives won a few seats in Toronto, otherwise something of an electoral desert for the Tories, with the same strategy. 

One of those seats was the riding of York Centre, which had been represented for the Liberals by hockey hall-of-famer Ken Dryden. Little known Conservative candidate Mark Adler, who never stopped a single shot in the NHL, took that seat, in part, by touting the Harper government's unambiguously pro-Israel stance. 

Adler contrasted the Harper policy to the traditional Liberal (and Canadian) approach of playing honest broker in the Middle East -- an approach that goes back to Lester Pearson's time as Canada's external affairs minister, in the 1950s. 

In 2015, the Trudeau team won back York Centre with an unabashedly pro-Israel candidate, Michael Levitt, who is one of the founders of Canadian Jewish Public Affairs Committee (CJPAC). Unlike the Canadian Jewish Congress which it supplanted, CJPAC lobbies not only on behalf of the Canadian Jewish community -- which numbers over 400,000 and is one of the largest in the world -- but also of the state of Israel. 

This time the Conservatives are running an anti-pro-choice evangelical Christian in York Centre, Rachel Willson. She is a member of a U.S.-based, conservative, pro-Israel organization called the Philos Project which describes itself as promoting Christian engagement in the Middle East. You be the judge as to what its actual goals are.

The only way Willson and her party can outflank a sitting MP with such solidly pro-Israel credentials as Levitt's is to make radical proposals such de-funding UNRWA -- the sort of measure the Trudeau Liberals would not touch with a ten-foot pole. 

It is hard to imagine this tactic will work for Andrew Scheer. Many Jews are suspicious of evangelical support for them or for Israel. But the Conservatives think it is worth a try. Maybe they know something the rest of us don't. 

And so, as the campaign continues, it will be worth watching what messages the leaders convey broadly to the whole country and where they narrow-cast to specific regions and communities.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
 
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