In a chaotic clash, the leaders of Canada’s six main parties met for their only English-language debate on Monday night, a meeting marked by a flurry of attacks on a crowded stage where the leaders clamoured for air time.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was the target of a series of ad-hominem criticisms, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer aggressively challenging him as a “phony” and a “fraud.” Other party chiefs pushed Mr. Trudeau on issues ranging from climate change to ethics.
While Mr. Scheer used his opening comments to attack Mr. Trudeau, the Liberal Leader used his time to talk about his platform, promising to invest directly in Canadians and give them “the tools to succeed.”
The debate featured Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Leader Elizabeth May, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier. The leaders frequently talked over each other and jousted on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The event was organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission and moderated by five journalists.
Held in Gatineau in advance of the Oct. 21 election, the debate began with Mr. Scheer on the attack, accusing Mr. Trudeau of “always wearing a mask.” Mr. Scheer, who struggled in last week’s French-language debate, appeared more comfortable in his first language.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has fought to break through in the election campaign, had a forceful performance in the debate, taking aim at both Mr. Scheer and Mr. Trudeau and earning a rare round of applause from the audience who had been asked to refrain from clapping.
“You don’t have to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny,” Mr. Singh said in reference to the Liberal and Conservative Leaders’ climate change policies.
Mr. Trudeau, tried to stay out of the fray, and at times even abstained from defending his record against attacks, for example on Indigenous issues.
The Liberal Leader was put on his heels by Mr. Scheer over his ethics record. Mr. Trudeau was twice found in breach of the federal ethics law, most recently over his government’s attempt to interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Mr. Scheer asked the Liberal Leader when he decided that “the rules don’t apply” to him, pointing to the story, first reported by The Globe.
“They were false,” Mr. Trudeau retorted about the allegations in the February Globe story that were corroborated by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion and by former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Mr. Trudeau also maintained his involvement in the prosecution came down to a concern with protecting jobs.
As the two leaders talked over each other, Mr. Singh scolded them both.
“What we have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing about who’s worse for Canada,” he said. "We’ve got to start presenting who’s going to be best for Canada.”
The Liberals and Conservatives, have been in a dead heat throughout the campaign according to Nanos Research polls. The leaders had less than 20 minutes each during the two-hour debate to get their message across.
Mr. Trudeau struggled to defend his climate policy, promising to “meet and surpass” targets which government numbers show will fall short of the 2030 emissions targets. Mr. Scheer attacking the carbon tax and Ms. May and Mr. Singh attacking him for buying a pipeline and keeping former prime minister Stephen Harper’s emissions targets.
“You could have done so much more in the last four years. Please God, you don’t get a majority this time around because you won’t keep your promises,” Ms. May said. “You bought a pipeline.”
Mr. Trudeau tried to punch back late in the debate with an attack on Mr. Scheer’s stance on abortion and past comments he’s made about LGBTQ rights. Mr. Trudeau said Canadians need to know that their prime minister will be “there to defend them.”
"I am personally pro-life. It is okay in this country to have a difference of opinion,” Mr. Scheer said, repeating his pledge not to reopen the issue if his party formed government.
Earning the first applause of the night, Mr. Singh said “a man has no position in a discussion on a woman’s right to choose.”
Ms. May said it’s been interesting in the campaign hearing men argue about what women’s rights should be, adding that, “We must be clear as all leaders, and you are not clear Andrew, that we will never allow a single inch of retreat from the hard earned rights of women in this country. Not one inch.”
The federal leaders zeroed in on health care, climate change and internal trade when pressed on how they would work with the provinces and territories. Relations between the two levels of government have turned frosty since Ontario Premier Doug Ford was elected last year and the Premier has found himself in Mr. Trudeau’s crosshairs.
Mr. Scheer accused the Liberal Leader of being “oddly obsessed” with Ontario politics and suggested Mr. Trudeau run for the provincial Liberal party’s leadership. And he promised that “premiers won’t have to take a Conservative government to court to fight things like the carbon tax.”
But Mr. Trudeau said he was “fighting" with Mr. Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney “on the defining issue of our time."
“We need a government in Ottawa that is going to fight them and fight for Canadians on climate change,” he said.
The Conservatives have made affordability the defining issue of their campaign, but it received less attention during the debate. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer duelled over their suite of promised tax cuts and tax credits and Mr. Singh accused both of them of acting in the interest of the “rich and powerful.”
The leaders were dismissive of Mr. Bernier, who started his own political party after breaking ties with the Conservatives last year. In particular, they piled on Mr. Bernier’s plan to reduce immigration to Canada.
“You don’t deserve a platform and I’m happy to challenge you on that because your ideas are hurtful to Canada,” Mr. Singh said to Mr. Bernier.
Two other English-language debates were also planned during the election, but Mr. Trudeau refused to attend either one. The final debate will be in French on Thursday.
The latest national numbers from Nanos Research shows the Liberals at 34 per cent and the Conservatives at 33 per cent – a gap that falls within the margin of error. The NDP is at 15 per cent, followed by the Greens at 10 per cent, the Bloc Québécois at 5 per cent and the People’s Party of Canada at 2 per cent.
The poll was sponsored by The Globe and Mail and CTV, with a total of 1,200 Canadians surveyed from Oct. 3 to Oct. 6. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Respondents were asked: “If a federal election were held today, could you please rank your top two current local voting preferences?” A report on the results, questions and methodology for this and all surveys can be found at tgam.ca/election-polls.