Last night was a first for Canada: a debate solely focused on foreign and defence policy. Well, sort of. Folks dragged in domestic political stuff, but the debate was a success anyway. Indeed, many pundits afterwards liked the flexible bilingual nature--that any of the party leaders could jump into and out of whichever language they wanted. A different format, one that resembles life in bilingual places (Montreal, Ottawa). Of course, this frustrated the truly bilingual since the broadcasts were either English with French translation or French with English translation but not a single outlet without translation....
The other thing that made this a unique debate is that I played a small role--I was on the advisory council that discussed which questions to ask. As I have no foreign policy experience, I was pretty silent when folks were talking about how to ask questions that would get the leaders talking and perhaps even off of their talking points. That credit goes to Frank Harvey and Janice Stein. My role was simply to dismiss the idea of asking a third set of Mideast questions---we had Iran, ISIS, and someone wanted to add Israel-Palestine. It came up anyway, but given the finite time (we omitted China and trade), spending more time on a region that is really distant was something I opposed.
Anyhow, debates are almost ways shaped by expectations. In this case, people had low expectations for Trudeau since he has bungled some of his previous foreign policy/defence stances and because he is depicted as "not read" by both the Conservatives and NDP. But he held up well, showing that he had a good mastery of the facts, pushed back when Mulcair criticized his father for stuff that most folks barely remember and only Quebeckers would be that pissed off about, and did a nice job of justifying some pretty problematic stances. It is hard to be the party in the middle.
Harper came off well in some segments but not others. To claim credit for all of the "progress" on Arctic sovereignty was pretty amazing, given that little has actually happened. All sled, no dogs, indeed! Still, Harper knows his stuff and did a nice job of pinning the other two candidates to often weak positions.
Mulcair is smart, but came off poorly, I think. While I am not a fan of Keystone, I don't think Mulcair really justified his stance well. I got blasted by some on the left for calling Mulcair a protectionist, but his party's stance is consistently less pro-trade than the others. Given Canada relies on trade, this is a problem. The debate was a big loss for him mostly because Trudeau did well. As they vie for the anti-Harper vote, nearly anything that helps Trudeau is bad for Mulcair and vice versa. Trudeau's solid performance was exactly what Mulcair did not need.
Overall, the debate focused on a bunch of substantial policy issues and showed some clear distinctions among the candidates, so it did the job it was supposed to do. It will be interesting to see how this was perceived not by the pundits (we pundits disagree as evidenced by my time on CTV news last night with David Bercuson) but by the voters. And we will only know that in about three weeks. Oh, and the voters will probably not be thinking that much about foreign/defence policy when they vote, but if they do, this debate will probably shape their views to an extent. Yea us!