The insults, jabs and zingers were delivered with precision and laced with acid.

“Mr. Mulcair talks about having been Minister of Environment in Quebec,” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said at one point, “but I was living in Quebec at that time and I remember he was talking about bulk water exports to the United States for Quebec and that’s certainly not something we are interested in.”

“That’s completely false…” NDP leader Tom Mulcair can be overheard interjecting.

“You gave a speech on it, you said it could be like forestry,” retorted Trudeau, turning and gesturing at Mulcair.

“That’s completely false…”

“Well, listen, look at your own record.”

“You look at the record,” said Mulcair before their words were drowned out as they bickered over one another. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper was watching this scene in smug delight.

At another juncture, while discussing government plans to invest in the economy, Trudeau attacked Mulcair with “[he] is not making a choice that’s going to allow us to invest in his promises, they are puffs of smoke...”

“You would know a lot about that, don’t you Justin,” Mulcair can be heard quipping, insinuating that Trudeau was a marijuana user – a riposte that drew laughter from the crowd.

Mulcair and Trudeau traded these barbs during last week’s leaders’ debate, held at the Stampede Park complex in Calgary. While it’s true the opposition leaders spent most of their time under the hot lights beating up on Harper over his economic record, they just as readily knocked each other around too.

2015 Globe and Mail party leaders' debate in Calgary
2015 Globe and Mail Party leaders' debate in Calgary. Photograph by The Canadian Press.

For voters desperate to end the reign of the Harper government this public squabbling between the opposition parties is alarming, largely because they fear it will only help Harper garner a fourth term as prime minister.

“We have an electoral system where a majority of people can vote for change and still see the Conservatives win seats because the parties refuse to work together,” says Amara Possian, election campaign manager for Leadnow, a national advocacy organization campaigning for strategic voting.

Some political experts agree. “It's most emphatically in Stephen Harper's interests to have the NDP and Liberals tied [in voter support],” says Toronto-based pollster and political strategist Allan Gregg.

“He does not want one of them to collapse. If one of them collapses, he loses… He doesn't want any of them to have a knockout punch."

Indeed, while the chances of Harper winning another majority are looking bleak, winning a minority government is still firmly within his grasp. And that’s because the opposition vote is split between the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens.

After all, as long-time Toronto-based election consultant Warren Kinsella points out, the only reason Harper has won the last three elections is because “the opposition parties are exactly where he wants them – splitting the progressive vote… Until the progressive side gets its act together he’s going to win.”

Back in 2011, of 14.8 million ballots cast, 5.8 million went to the Conservatives, and a combined total of 7.9 million went to the Liberal, NDP and Green parties – a difference of more than two million ballots. And yet the Tories picked up an extra 23 seats and wrested control of the House.

This occurs because of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which hands victory to the candidate who wins the most votes in any individual riding – but not necessarily a majority of voters. For example, in the riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming in Ontario, Tory candidate Jay Aspin won four years ago by garnering 15,507 votes (or 36.7 per cent) – although the NDP, Liberal and Green combined vote was 26,850.

In fact, the Conservatives picked up an additional 20 seats in Ontario during that election even though the combined Liberal and NDP votes in those ridings outnumbered the Tory winner. One post-election analysis said if you added the opposition votes together that year, the Tories would have won only 137 seats – far below the 155 required for a majority.

Vote-splitting often radically distorts the outcomes of elections. In 1990, the NDP won a majority government in Ontario with only 37.6 percent of the vote. In the 1993 federal election, the Tories won only two seats although they received 16 percent of the vote (in contrast, the NDP won nine seats with less than seven per cent support). During the ‘90s and early 2000s, the Liberals won three back-to-back majorities because right-wing parties were splitting the vote, although the Liberals never won more than 41 percent in any of those elections.

This alarming situation has given rise to grassroots campaigns by Leadnow, the Dogwood Initiative, Project Democracy, and Fair Vote Canada— along with Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union—pressing voters to embrace strategic voting to defeat the Tories.

Says Possian: “We are trying to defeat Conservatives in ridings where vote-splitting will lead to a Conservative victory.”

The dirty little secret, though, is that for the opposition, the road to 24 Sussex Drive often runs through trashing each other, and not necessarily by only pummeling Harper.

“The Conservative vote is the least likely to collapse,” explains Gregg. “That vote is pretty solid. While the NDP and Liberals have way more room to grow than the Conservatives, they also have way more likelihood of collapsing. So if I'm Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair and I want to be prime minister of this country, the most direct route is to attack my progressive opponent. There are no votes for them to get by attacking Stephen Harper. That decision has already been made.”

Why the NDP and Liberals pummel one another

Canadians casting their ballots on October 19th might assume they, collectively, decide who is prime minister. But due to the peculiarities of our electoral system, only a small fraction of Canada’s 24 million potential voters really determines who wins that job – as few as 500,000 to be precise.

Frenemies? Photo of Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau by The Canadian Press

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, says that more than half of all voters are disenfranchised as soon as they vote simply because of the winner-take-all electoral system.

“If someone can win [a riding] with as little as 35 percent of the vote, all of those other voters don't have a representative,” she points out.

In fact, due to the vast differences in the country’s political makeup, many ridings are what they called “strongholds” – where one party has a lock. In Alberta, for example, the Tories picked up 27 of 28 federal seats in 2011, although they only won 66.8 percent of the vote in the province – which meant 33 percent of voters had virtually no representation in Ottawa.

In other ridings, the battle is between opposition parties, with the Tories not having a prayer. In a downtown Toronto riding like Spadina-Fort York, currently contested between Liberal Adam Vaughan and NDPer Olivia Chow, Tory candidate Sabrina Zuniga has little prospect of winning.

In fact, out of 338 seats up for grabs this year, Leadnow estimates there are 72 so-called “swing” ridings where the Tories could be beaten. During the 2011 election, 6,201 votes was the combined margin of victory across the 14 most closely-contested Conservative ridings – with 6,215 being the number needed by the nearest parties in those races to have won them by one vote.

“The ability to move about seven to eight percent of the popular vote is all that it takes to go from a landslide victory to a humiliating defeat,” points out Patrick Boyer, a political scholar and former Tory MP during the Mulroney years.

Moreover, with Ontario containing a mother lode of 121 seats, “that's where the parties focus on,” says Carmichael.

“And what happens, though, is that half the electorate is ignored during the election and their issues don't matter because the parties don't go there. If you look at their schedules and where [the leaders are] going, the parties are focusing on the 905 and the Toronto area and a couple of different areas where they think they can swing the vote.”

Yet Carmichael says by focusing on a small number of swing voters “we do boutique issues in the ridings and some of the larger issues that Canadians care about get left on the cutting room floor – like climate change… With the system now, everyone fights for the middle.”

Indeed, where the parties devote resources, their messaging and whom they attack is based on how best to woo this thin slice of critical voters. The Tories, for example, realized long ago not to waste money on ridings in downtown urban centres like Toronto where they have little chance of winning. Instead, they focus on richer terrain like the suburbs.

But in figuring out how to win, certain practical realities arise. “If you're asking should Mr. Mulcair or Mr. Trudeau lose sight that they share a common enemy that is not each other, absolutely I agree with you,” says Robin Sears, an Ottawa-based lobbyist and former national director of the NDP.

“But that's not all that useful in tactical terms because the fair response from each side is: ‘Yeah, we’re going to attack Harper and represent ourselves as the best Harper-killer, but in riding X, the competition is the Liberals and we can't tell them to not attack the Liberals because that doesn't make any sense’.”

While many progressives might despair over the NDP and Liberals beating up on each other, both parties believe they can win by taking away voters from the other.

“If Conservative voters are going to go anywhere they are going to go Liberal,” explains Gregg. “And if the NDP voters are going to go anywhere, they're going to go Liberal. If Liberal voters are going to go anywhere, they’re going to go New Democrat. But there are more Liberal voters who would vote Conservative than there are NDP voters who would vote Conservative. So whether you’re going to lose support or gain support the enemy is the Liberals.”

Divide and conquer

“Why do you have the worst attendance record in the House of Commons?”

With this pointed question, asked at one of the leaders’ debates during the 2011 election, Jack Layton pounded a nail in the coffin of Michael Ignatieff’s political career.

2011 Debate Photograph by The Canadian Press
'You know most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion’ Photograph by The Canadian Press

In the business of politics, this sort of dagger-to-the-heart thrust is known as a “pivot” – and it was no accident. The NDP had been honing this attack for a while, and even turned it into a series of attack ads, pointing out how Ignatieff was only in the House of Commons during 30 percent of votes.

“When Layton beat up Ignatieff during the debate about the fact he was never up in Ottawa, that was the end of the Liberal Party,” says Jim Karygiannis, a former long-time Liberal MP. “You could see the shift.”

Indeed, come election day, the Liberals were routed: they fell from 77 seats down to 34, and from 26 to 19 percent of the vote. “In 2011, traditional Liberal voters fled to the Conservative party in the last seven days of the campaign,” remarks Brad Lavigne, the NDP’s senior election campaign advisor.

Andrew Steele, a former senior adviser to one of Ontario’s premiers, argues that the NDP helped the Tories garner their majority because they scared enough centre-right Liberal voters to back Harper.

“Again we see the age-old problem: a rising NDP splits the vote and allows the Tories to win seats that otherwise aren't in their reach,” Steele wrote in 2011. “Why do we get vote splits? One reason is simple math. The Conservative vote stays the same, but as the Liberal vote falls, the Conservative candidate can get elected with fewer votes.”

This is not to suggest the NDP is to blame: after all, the Tories were enormously effective in destroying Ignatieff. Moreover, the NDP is not responsible for the weaknesses of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post system that gives majorities to parties who win minorities of the popular vote.

“I caution anyone who suggests that it is the Conservatives that benefit from a [progressive] vote split,” says Lavigne. “The votes can be split in a variety of different ways. There is a non-NDP vote, there is a non-Liberal vote, there is a non-Bloc vote in the province of Quebec. So it is not a truism that the Conservative party only wins when the non-Conservative vote is split… If you take a look at the country it is segmented into a variety of different splits."

Nevertheless, the NDP and Liberals keep taking the cudgels to one another with relish, it seems. This week, Winnipeg-based NDP MP Pat Martin was forced to apologize after he called a Green Party candidate a “son of a bitch” and the Liberal candidate a “political slut” (he also once called the Conservatives “rat-faced whores”).

The NDP have also attacked Trudeau over whether he’s suitable to be prime minister. Quebec New Democrat MP Robert Aubin once said: “When the president of the United States calls to speak to the Canadian prime minister, you want Justin to answer?...Yeah, well, maybe he is not ready.”

The NDP also recently released a dubious poll suggesting Trudeau was lagging in his own riding. They've also criticized him for backing Bill C-51, for his attitude towards small businesses, and for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have attacked the NDP by accusing them of planning austerity cuts, supporting the F-35 fighter, and fudging their budget numbers— as well as attacking their positions on Québec separatism and a national minimum wage.

This past week, the Liberals released an internal NDP briefing note on childcare, suggesting the party was misleading voters with an “empty promise” because they were counting existing daycare spaces. “In cities across Canada, day-after-day, Mulcair repeatedly promises one million ‘new’ child care spaces, but it’s all bogus,” said Liberal candidate for Mississauga–Malton, Navdeep Bains.

Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki says that while, on the face of it, the Liberals and NDP attacking each other “puts at risk the prospect of defeating the Tories” he adds that, “it will take a crystal ball to figure out exactly how those votes fall out. It's not one election. It’s 338 different elections. You should be wary of generalizing.”

This is not what groups like Leadnow believe. They feel that voting strategically remains the best solution, and have created a website, votetogether.ca, where people can find out which opposition candidate has the best chance of beating the Tories in their riding.

Prior to this election, Leadnow appealed to the NDP and Liberals to only run one candidate from either party who had the best chance of besting the Tories in swing ridings – but the parties refused.

“Parties by nature are trying to get as many votes as possible,” observes Leadnow’s Amara Possian. “The tragic reality, though, is that our broken voting system could easily distort our votes and end up giving the Conservatives a false majority mandate that most people actively oppose.”

Judgement Day

In the end, whatever happens on October 19, chances are that Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair will find themselves having to work together – although that sometimes seems hard to imagine. During last week’s debate, the animosity towards one another was glaring, with the daggers unsheathed.

At one point, arguing over taxes offered to small businesses, Mulcair said: “You’re talking from experience about the shell company you set [up] for your speaking fees. That’s not the experience I’ve seen with the Mum and Pop operations across Canada.”

“Your experience is to play politics with everything, Mr. Mulcair,” snapped Trudeau.

For many Canadians, this sort of discord is not much fun to witness. As Possian says: “I think an inability to work together for progress is costing us the future we want.”

'Puffs of smoke.' Trudeau attacks Mulcair, Mulcair attacks Trudeau. Harper watches.