OTTAWA—It was a debate mosh pit, and no federal political leader walked away without bruises.
From the moment the clock started ticking on the first and only English language debate of the campaign, the five political leaders taking part were at each others’ throats. And while no clear winner emerged from the scrappy two-hour debate, every participant scored points on their opponents and took damage in return during a debate that was more a brawl than their previous French encounters.
For the first time in federal politics, all major parties vow to fight climate change. A major flashpoint in Thursday’s melee centred on which party has the best plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions and lead Canada’s transition to renewable energy.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau charged Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives would take Canada backwards by reverting to “Harper’s” softer emissions targets — a reference to the 2030 goal set by the former prime minister and maintained by Trudeau’s Liberals until earlier this year.
O’Toole introduced the Conservatives’ first carbon pricing scheme in April because, he admitted, “we had to restore trust on this issue to get emissions down and get the economy working again.” Yet O’Toole stood firm and defended his support of the oil and gas sector, stating that tens of thousands of people in the industry “deserve an economic recovery” like everyone else.
Trudeau charged that O’Toole “can’t even convince his party that climate change is real,” prompting O’Toole to accuse the Liberal leader of falling short on Canada’s climate targets, even though Trudeau’s stated goal under the Paris agreement doesn’t come due until 2030.
Singh cut in with a quip. “We just heard Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Trudeau argue over who’s worse, and honestly it’s a tough choice,” he said.
Moments later, Singh and Trudeau clashed over the NDP’s climate plan, which the Liberal leader said is “panned” by experts for lack of detail. Singh fired back that Trudeau failed to reduce emissions after more than six years in power.
The stakes in the debate couldn’t have been higher, with poll after poll showing a tight national race between the Liberals and Conservatives, and a competitive New Democratic Party chugging along in third place.
Over two hours, the five leaders jousted over questions from voters and journalists on affordability, climate change, COVID-19 recovery, leadership and accountability, and reconciliation.
Moderator Shachi Kurl set the tone early, and leaders took their cue from there.
Trudeau was challenged on his snap election call, and on his feminist credentials, prompting Green Leader Annamie Paul to name the women ousted from his cabinet.
Trudeau’s four rivals leapt to criticize his handling of Afghanistan, China, Huawei, the pandemic and reconciliation.
Pivoting from defence to offence, Trudeau tried several times to question O’Toole’s sincerity on issues like foreign policy and reconciliation, stating the Conservative leader is only “very able to say the right things.” But Trudeau did not land a debilitating blow, with O’Toole repeatedly emphasizing his party’s plan if it wins power after the Sept. 20 election.
Paul, the first Black Jewish woman to head a national party, was called to explain how she can be trusted when she faces deep internal divisions in her Green party.
Paul admitted it had been a “very difficult period” and “incredibly hard” but defiantly said she had to “crawl over a lot of broken glass” and “because I am the first of my kind I know I won’t be the last.”
She also quickly took a shot at Trudeau, proclaiming she does “not believe Mr. Trudeau is a feminist” and she thanked women who have publicly challenged Trudeau’s leadership as prime minister: former Liberals Jane Philpott, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Celina Caesar-Chavannes.
Trudeau clapped back: “I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you.” It was perhaps a nod to how a Green MP defected to the Liberals amid party turmoil in June.
Meanwhile, O’Toole was challenged over how much control he really has over his caucus when he cannot get his candidates to get vaccinated, has retained a candidate who supports climate conspiracies, and allowed much of his caucus to vote against conversion therapy.
“I am driving the bus to get this country back on track,” O’Toole said.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet pushed back when asked to explain his support for “discriminatory” laws in Quebec.
“Quebec is a nation,” Blanchet retorted, noting all leaders onstage agreed. Blanchet later bristled when asked how he’d fight “systemic racism” against Indigenous people in Quebec, given the treatment of Joyce Echaquan as she lay dying in a hospital bed.
Blanchet said he recognized the existence of systemic racism but the words “became a political tool against Quebec.” Paul said it was jaw-dropping. Blanchet accused her of insulting him, and Paul replied: “That was not an insult that was an invitation to educate yourself.”
Spaced out across a glitzy stage placed in a gallery of totem poles at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., the five mainstream party leaders squared off for the third and final debate — and only one in English — of this 36-day federal election campaign.
The debate excluded People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, but about 200 of his supporters gathered outside as the leaders arrived.
Hours before it began, the premier of Quebec, François Legault, dropped a bombshell into the federal campaign – the only provincial premier to launch such a blistering attack on the incumbent Trudeau.
Legault lumped the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens together, saying it is “worrying” that all three parties threaten Quebec’s ability to manage its own affairs, and said Trudeau’s “meddling” approach “frightens me.”
It wasn’t an outright endorsement of O’Toole, but Legault sang his praises. “It’s up to Quebecers to choose,” said Legault, saying the “three parties, the Liberal party, the NDP and the Green party that want to give us less autonomy. I find that dangerous.”
The televised clashes have the potential to shift public opinion, coming just as party strategists believe Canadians are tuning into the election campaign, with just 10 days left before election day.
In 2019, the federal debates commission said more than 14 million people had viewed the English debate, and some 5 million the French.
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