The only English-language debate to feature all six federal party leaders devolved Monday into crosstalk and mudslinging as the leaders tried to break the impasse in voting intentions that has persisted through three weeks of campaigning.
As the incumbent prime minister, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau inevitably bore the brunt of the attacks, with the sharpest coming from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who called him “a phoney and a fraud.”
But the format of the debate and the sheer number of leaders on stage made substantive debate on policies difficult and, as they talked over one another, often impossible to hear.
As Trudeau and Scheer, battled it out for first place in the minds of voters, other party leaders tried to position themselves as alternatives to the warring front-runners.
After a set-to between Trudeau and Scheer over who has the better climate-change policy, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh told viewers they don’t have to choose between ”Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.”
Elizabeth May, whose Green party is fighting with the NDP for third place, framed the choice differently.
“At this point, Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you’re not going to be prime minister,” she said bluntly at one point. She predicted that Trudeau’s Liberals will win at least a minority government so “voting for Green MPs is your very best guarantee, Canada, that you don’t get the government you least want.”
Regardless of the question, Singh took every opportunity to repeat his favourite theme: that Liberals and Conservatives alike pander to wealthy corporations whereas the NDP will fight for ordinary Canadians with investments in child care, pharmacare and dental care.
In a debate that very often featured after-the-bell jabs right before the tumbling roster of moderators moved on to new topics, Singh cracked the most jokes.
More than once, someone called him “Mr. Scheer” by mistake; after the second time, Singh said he’d even worn a bright orange turban so they’d be easy to tell apart. Scheer joked back that his own slight height advantage should have done the trick.
But in the main, like the other leaders, Singh was deadly serious about his targets.
“Mr. Trudeau does not have the courage to take on the insurance and the pharmaceutical lobbyists who don’t want this to happen,” Singh said. “You vote New Democrats, we’re going to make sure we’re going to make these things happen because we don’t work for the powerful and wealthy … We work for you.”
Trudeau attempted to remind voters of his government’s record: lifting 900,000 Canadians out of poverty, creating almost one million jobs, robust economic growth, cutting taxes for the middle-class. And he argued that the Liberals have done more to tackle climate change than any Canadian government in history.
Trudeau also cast himself as a champion of diversity, inclusion and human rights, pointing out that he’s the only federal leader to leave the door open to intervening in a court challenge to Quebec’s secularism law, which forbids certain public servants, including teachers and police, from wearing religious symbols.
But right from his opening remarks, Scheer went after Trudeau on everything from the SNC-Lavalin affair to his recent apology for appearing in blackface several times in the distant past.
“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “You know, he’s very good at pretending things. He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”
Scheer accused Trudeau of wearing masks on Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and on his concern for middle-class Canadians.
“Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phoney and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country.”
The format of the debate gave Trudeau no immediate opportunity to respond to Scheer’s attack, but he repeatedly went after Scheer at other times for his personal anti-abortion views and for promoting tax cuts for the rich.
Scheer rounded on Trudeau again later, raising the SNC-Lavalin affair. He accused Trudeau of breaking ethics law, shutting down parliamentary inquiries and firing two senior female cabinet ministers who objected to his trying to pressure his former attorney general to halt a criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant.
“Tell me, when did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?” he said.
“Mr. Scheer, the role of a prime minister is stand up for Canadians’ jobs, to stand up for the public interest and that’s what I’ve done,” Trudeau responded.
Trudeau got back-up of a sort from Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who accused Scheer of being willing to sacrifice thousands of SNC-Lavalin employees and of playing the old card that Quebecers are “corrupt.”
Trudeau then veered onto one of his favourite themes, accusing Scheer of giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Canadians and conducting himself just like Ontario Premier Doug Ford. He also noted that Scheer hasn’t yet released a fully costed platform, which he called “a disrespect for every Canadian.”
“You’re choosing, just like Doug Ford did, to hide your platform from Canadians and deliver cuts to services and cut taxes for the wealthiest. That’s not the way to grow the economy.”
As for Maxime Bernier, Scheer’s one-time leadership rival who quit the Conservatives to form the People’s Party of Canada, Trudeau said his job on the debate stage was to say the things Scheer believes privately.
Bernier fought back against accusations that his party is extreme right and anti-immigration, arguing that it’s not radical to want to cut Canada’s annual immigration intake by half. He repeatedly referred to the NDP and Green parties as “socialist.”
Earlier Monday, the shadow of Ford loomed large over the pre-debate campaign trail as the Liberals kept lumping the Ontario premier together with Scheer, while the Conservatives did their best to pry the two apart.
Front-runners Scheer and Trudeau — deadlocked in the polls, by most accounts — made brief appearances in Ottawa before joining their four other foes in preparing for the debate. Trudeau met a group of Ontario teachers in a bid to highlight ongoing tensions between the province’s education workers and the Ford government — tensions that eased ever so slightly the night before when a last-minute agreement saved parents across the province from a potentially disruptive strike.
Ford’s cuts to services such as education have made him unpopular with voters and a drag on federal Conservative fortunes, observers say. Indeed, the premier’s absence from the Scheer campaign became all the more glaring over the weekend when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney glided in to pitch for Scheer in Toronto, including in Ford’s home turf of Etobicoke.
You don't have to choose between Mr. Delay (@JustinTrudeau) & Mr. Deny (@AndrewScheer).— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) October 8, 2019
It's time to start fighting the climate crisis like we want to win by taking on the largest polluters & creating 300,000 new jobs in the clean energy economy of the future. #CanadaDebates2019
Trudeau has been trying to take advantage, linking Ford to Scheer every chance he can. The premier will oppose and interfere with Liberal efforts to reduce child poverty and increase federal child benefits, Trudeau said, warning Scheer would only make matters worse.
“Right now we’re in an election where the option is to double down on Conservative approaches, which always cut services, looks for austerity and gives tax breaks to the wealthiest instead of to everyone else,” he said.
Scheer, who’d much rather not talk about Ford, called Trudeau’s photo op with teachers a “disgusting” attempt to politicize education. (In the debate later, he suggested Trudeau seek the vacant leadership of the Ontario Liberal party, since he’s so interested in provincial issues.)
Meanwhile, Scheer’s party carefully tried to set itself apart from Ford on at least one issue that has been particularly troublesome for the Ontario leader: autism.
Alberta Conservative Mike Lake issued a written statement saying the Conservatives would establish a national autism strategy with $50 million in funding over five years. Scheer, in Ottawa to promise free admission to Canada’s national museums, breathed nary a word about it.
Lake, whose son Jaden was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, is a well-known global advocate for autism awareness and treatment.
The Conservatives appeared all day to be leading up the debate with a plan to go after the Liberals for an allegedly secret plan to tax profits on home sales made within one, two or three years of purchasing. A new website and multiple tweets to that effect were met by the Liberals with a press conference where Liberal Steven MacKinnon reiterated that Trudeau had kiboshed the proposal, which was mentioned in a 2018 report to Ontario caucus as an idea that had come up in townhall meetings. The Conservatives responded saying MacKinnon had “confirmed” the plan, even though he had said the opposite.
May has been doing her best to parry an NDP narrative that her candidates are opposed to abortion, but that got a little harder Monday with word that Marthe Lepine had been “removed” as the Green candidate in an eastern Ontario riding for “views about abortion that did not align with (Green party) policy.”
The six leaders will face off again Thursday in the official French-language debate.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume
Joan Bryden and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press