The first two questions Justin Trudeau faced during a Sunday night interview on Radio-Canada illustrated the baggage the Liberal Leader continues to carry during an election campaign for which he alone bears responsibility.
Asked whether he regretted having called the Sept. 20 election and whether this campaign would be his last as Liberal leader, Mr. Trudeau responded with a categorical “no” to the first question and with a somewhat less categorical “not necessarily” to the second.
Canadian voters will ultimately decide whether Mr. Trudeau made a career-ending move by sending them to the polls on the flimsy pretext that the minority Parliament had become dysfunctional and because, as he told Radio-Canada, “big decisions” await the next government.
But Sunday night’s French-language interviews with the five main federal party leaders buttressed the notion that Canadians will elect another minority government and that it could well be one led by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.
That constitutes a significant change from the outset of the campaign. And while it remains too soon to conclude that the political ground has shifted in Quebec since Mr. Trudeau called the election on Aug. 15, the anybody-but-Conservative sentiment that dominated the previous three federal campaigns in the province is much diminished.
Credit Mr. O’Toole and his proposed “contract with Quebeckers” for that. The Tory Leader has benefited from not being either Stephen Harper or Andrew Scheer. Mr. O’Toole smiles a lot more and promises to engage in a “fédéralisme de partenariat” with the Quebec government led by uber-popular François Legault.
The Quebec Premier last week appeared to seek to tip the scales by all but eliminating the Liberals and New Democrats from contention, declaring them too “centralizing” for a nationalist Quebecker to consider voting for. It was a less-than-subtle nod toward Mr. O’Toole, who was practically giddy afterward.
In presenting his list of “demands” to the federal party leaders, Mr. Legault put far less emphasis on Bill 21 – the provincial legislation that bans some civil servants from displaying religious symbols on the job – than he did in 2019, when he sought a commitment from Ottawa to stay out of a court challenge to the law. Rather, he asked Quebeckers to take note of the leaders’ responses to his demands for more no-strings-attached health care funding and for the power to choose which immigrants come to Quebec under the federal family reunification program. The Conservative platform comes closest to meeting Mr. Legault’s demands on both counts.
It helps Mr. O’Toole that Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet upset many of his own party’s faithful by calling on the federal government to fund 40 per cent of the proposed $10-billion tunnel under the St. Lawrence River connecting Quebec City to its south shore suburbs. The Bloc Leader was widely ridiculed for saying the so-called “third link” could be “positive” for the environment, despite overwhelming opposition from environmental leaders and the provincial Parti Québécois.
The absence of any mention of Quebec independence from the Bloc’s election platform has also upset rank-and-file bloquistes and péquistes, some of whom may now abstain from voting.
During Sunday night’s interview, Mr. Trudeau warned that Mr. O’Toole would reverse advances made under the Liberals, starting with the $6-billion over five years for child care that Ottawa has promised Quebec. Mr. O’Toole, whose Tories are instead promising bigger child care tax credits for parents, would not say whether he would honour the deal the Liberal Leader signed earlier this month with Mr. Legault.
Mr. Trudeau attacked the Conservative climate change plan, which proposes a carbon-price ceiling of $50 a tonne, compared with $170 under the Liberals. Mr. O’Toole insisted a Tory government would prioritize completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and favour the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline over an east-west oil pipeline, though he did not explicitly rule out imposing the latter on Quebec in the future.
The Liberal Leader also brought up gun control, a hot-button issue in Quebec, and warned that the “Conservatives want to put assault weapons back on the market.”
Mr. O’Toole faced repeated questioning on Sunday about whether he would be able to control socially conservative members in his own caucus, whose views on abortion and medical aid in dying run counter to those of most Quebeckers. He was also grilled about whether he agreed with rogue Ontario MP Cheryl Gallant, who, in pre-election correspondence sent to constituents, had peddled a conspiracy theory about a coming “climate lockdown” under the Liberals. None of his answers came close to putting the issue to bed. Expect the Liberals and the Bloc to accelerate attacks on Mr. O’Toole’s apparent unwillingness to denounce members of his caucus who continue to cause harm to the Tory brand in Quebec.
Still, this is a very different Tory campaign in Quebec than the last one, and voters in the province could surprise even themselves on Sept. 20.
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