OTTAWA—Political promises were on the menu, but hot takes on character and credibility were the dishes served up at the French-language debate staged in Gatineau Wednesday night.
There was no clear winner, but what emerged was a five-way fight that featured a more combative Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and a more confident Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, as polls show a tight two-way race nationally, and a weaker Bloc Québécois in Quebec.
Five federal political leaders met face-to-face for the second debate of the campaign, only this time with Green Leader Annamie Paul onstage. They parried questions from journalists and voters, and clashed over who can be trusted to lead the country.
Pandemic response, health care, climate change, child care and public finances were flashpoints hours after the Conservative party finally released the cost of its platform, which lowballed the Liberals in dollar-for-dollar new spending and nearly matched Trudeau’s projected deficits over the next five years.
For three weeks, Trudeau had been challenged to justify his snap election call and faced angry anti-vaxxer protests. But on Wednesday, Trudeau went on the offensive against O’Toole, painting him as someone who won’t make the hard decisions on mandatory vaccinations to get Canada out of the pandemic, and who “equates vaccines with rapid tests.” He said, in justifying the snap election, that those decisions need to be made “this fall, not in two or three years.”
O’Toole challenged Trudeau over calling what he said is an unnecessary election, and the Conservative leader suggested that if he won a minority Conservative government, he would not trigger any early election. But when asked to confirm his meaning, he said only “we all have to work together.”
The debate began on a more subdued note than last week’s. The format of questions and answers kept the leaders from directly confronting each other for significant portions of the program. However, once the moderator allowed for “open debate,” there were clashes.
Trudeau, who stood directly beside O’Toole on stage at the Canadian Museum of History after parties drew straws, accused the Conservative leader of failing to “stand up” for Canada’s universal public health care system, even as O’Toole insisted he supports it.
O’Toole did not answer directly when the moderator, Patrice Roy, pressed him twice on how much privately led health care he would allow and whether people with more money should be able to pay for quicker access to medical services. O’Toole responded that he would “respect” the provinces, prompting Trudeau to retort it’s the federal government’s job to protect the Canada Health Act.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — who needed to appeal to progressive voters — charged at Trudeau from the outset, pegging the Liberal leader as “selfish” for seeking a new mandate and trying to turn his minority into a majority. He also accused the Liberal government of allowing the rich to “exploit the system” and argued that only the NDP would make the wealthy pay their “fair share,” with his party pledging higher taxes on corporations, the rich and a crackdown on tax havens.
On child care, Trudeau took a run at O’Toole, who would replace the Liberals’ nascent $30-billion child care program with tax credits that would cover up to $6,000 in child care expenses. Trudeau said the Conservative tax credit won’t help low income families in Quebec who already don’t pay child care fees that are covered by the province. O’Toole’s pledge to kill Quebec’s $6-billion share of the national plan would eliminate the spaces that families have needed for years, Trudeau said, adding that O’Toole would “scrap the whole thing.”
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Paul, the Green leader, then chimed in, stating the other leaders should let the sole woman on stage speak about the issue. The party wants to increase federal child care spending to 1 per cent of Canada’s GDP and create a national affordable child care program.
During a debate on climate change, Singh accused Trudeau of failing to take effective action to slash emissions over six years in government.
“It makes me sad,” Singh said. “I take no joy in saying this, but after six years, you have the worst record in the G7.”
Trudeau fired back moments later that climate experts support the Liberal plan and that it also “breaks my heart” that Singh isn’t as serious with the NDP’s policies to slash emissions.
The Liberals have unveiled new pledges to aggressively move to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 2005 levels, and Trudeau mocked the Conservative plan to revert to a less ambitious target of 30 per cent emission cuts, saying the Paris Accord requires countries to be “more ambitious.”
O’Toole also claimed the Liberals’ plan would fall short of Canada’s new target, prompting Singh to quip: “I agree with Mr. O’Toole that Mr. Trudeau will miss his targets, but Mr. O’Toole will do the same thing.”
A short time later, a bitter exchange erupted between the BQ leader and Trudeau, when Yves-François Blanchet challenged Trudeau to accord the same respect to Quebeckers as to Indigenous people who want to determine their destiny.
Trudeau, who is battling the BQ in many francophone ridings, retorted: “I am a Quebecker, I am a proud Quebecker,” and he slammed Blanchet for claiming to be the only voice for people in the province.
Blanchet replied that Quebec’s true voice is heard in Quebec’s legislative assembly.
“And in Canada, Mr. Blanchet,” Trudeau stated. “You won’t accuse me of not being a Quebecker.”
Meanwhile, Paul’s task in the debate was mammoth: to introduce herself to Canadians as Green leader after months of infighting in her own party, and after spending the entire campaign so far in Toronto with no public events since Saturday.
Paul championed the Green climate plan as the standout of the bunch, pointing to promises to cancel the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and phase out Canada’s fossil fuel sector by 2035. She also denounced the “hyperpartisan” culture in federal politics, and pledged to improve long-term-care facilities like the one where her father died during the second wave of the pandemic.
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