A key question that emerged from Thursday night’s French-language debate is whether the purchase of a pipeline to the Pacific will be the thing that weighs Justin Trudeau down in Quebec.
The word “pipeline” came up over and over, especially in the first hour of the debate, and it seemed to slow down Mr. Trudeau like a tranquilizer dart.
The Liberal Leader is heading into the home stretch of the campaign where he is expected to appeal to Quebec’s progressive voters to join him to stop Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, in particular when it comes to combatting climate change.
But as he tried to argue he was the only leader who could adopt a serious plan to address climate change, three others – Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May – kept pointing out he had bought a pipeline.
The Trans Mountain pipeline purchase is more of a vulnerability in Quebec than elsewhere – seen as a potent symbol that Mr. Trudeau isn’t as green as he says – and Mr. Blanchet, Mr. Singh and Ms. May kept poking at it.
Mr. Trudeau tried to argue that shipping oil via pipelines is better than rail, but it didn’t shore up his environmental credentials.
The only silver lining in that for the Liberal Leader is the dynamic didn’t help Mr. Scheer, either – the Conservative Party Leader, after all, has proposed another pipeline that would go through Quebec. But Mr. Trudeau has other opponents in Quebec, notably Mr. Blanchet’s Bloc, and he has to worry about losing votes to the NDP and the Greens.
There was another dynamic at play, where both Mr. Scheer and Mr. Trudeau were trying to beat back the advances of the Bloc since Mr. Blanchet took charge of the first French-language debate on Oct. 2. The Bloc now appears to be knocking back the Conservatives, and Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are now worrying about the separatist party’s rise, too.
That led to Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer delivering the same message on several occasions: that it is governments that get things done, not opposition blocs.
Mr. Trudeau argued he had the only real climate change that can actually be implemented, and called for a “strong government, full of Quebeckers.” Mr. Scheer argued the Bloc cannot transfer to Quebec the additional immigration powers sought by Premier François Legault, because more Bloc MPs would mean Mr. Trudeau stays in power.
But Mr. Trudeau, too, was eager to please Mr. Legault: he said Quebec, which chooses its own economic immigrants, can apply a controversial values test when it selects them, and he called that “appropriate.”
Mr. Trudeau still refused to rule out eventually joining a court challenge against Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars some public servants from wearing religious symbols – but he stressed that a federal government must be willing to protect minorities such as francophones in Doug Ford’s Ontario.
But neither Mr. Trudeau nor Mr. Scheer really fought back Mr. Blanchet in this debate. The Bloc Leader wasn’t as combative as he had been in the first debate. But the other leaders on stage, Mr. Singh, Ms. May, and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, were aiming at Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Scheer.
That leaves Mr. Scheer without any reason to think this debate repaired his weakened fortunes in Quebec. The rise of the Bloc over the past 10 days appears to have come at his expense, and there is no sign he stopped it.
But it will also make Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals anxious. He didn’t get across the closing argument of his campaign – that left-of-centre Quebeckers should join him to stop the Conservatives. Three other leaders, besides Mr. Scheer, are still competing for some of the same voters, and the purchase of a pipeline seems to be slowing him down.