OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau tried to land blows Thursday night on top of opponent Erin O’Toole in a critical election debate that he’s counting on to help him reinvigorate his campaign — and prolong his political career.
In the final debate of Canada’s election campaign, the Liberal leader made several attempts to discredit a Conservative rival who has defied low expectations and mounted a legitimate challenge to Trudeau’s prime ministership.
“He’s very able to say all the right things, but there are countless examples of him actually not living up to his words,” Trudeau said of O’Toole during a segment on Indigenous reconciliation. “We’ve seen them a number of times during his campaign.”
O’Toole attempted to hit back at Trudeau a little later, mocking the Liberal leader’s long-running commitments that he said “continue to be a priority.”
“He’s going to get to the calls to action, he’s going to have transparency, he’s going to make targets,” O’Toole said of Trudeau, who’s been in power since 2015. “He announces things and never delivers. Mr. Trudeau — a prime minister has to deliver on the words, not just fancy words to make promises.”
Trudeau replied: “By the way Mr. O’Toole, I won’t take lessons from you on making promises and not following up when you’re beholden to the gun lobby, beholden to the anti-vaxxers.”
Any leader looking to stand out in Thursday’s debate faced obstacles. The much-criticized format of the two-hour debate left little room for the candidates to set themselves apart or to adequately challenge their opponents.
It will likely take days before any impacts of the event show up in opinion polls.
The debate, hosted by the CBC public broadcaster, featured Canada’s five main party leaders — Trudeau, O’Toole, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, the Greens’ Annamie Paul and the Bloc Québécois’ Yves-François Blanchet.
How we got here: Leaders’ debates in Canada rarely produce knock-out punches and seldom transform election campaigns. But Trudeau and his Liberals will be hoping Thursday’s event will at least be part of a big turnaround they will need before Sept. 20.
Trudeau called the snap election last month while his party was high in the polls — to the point that the majority mandate the Liberals lost in late 2019 appeared to be within their grasp.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and polls started to show a surge by the Conservatives, led by the widely unknown O’Toole, had moved them neck and neck with the Liberals. The Conservative momentum has appeared to stall in recent days, but the gap has narrowed to the point that election day could be a toss up.
Even if Trudeau clings to a minority mandate after Sept. 20, any failure to recapture the majority he lost in 2019 would raise serious questions about the future of his leadership.
The unwanted election: Liberals themselves have acknowledged that Trudeau’s campaign got off to a bumpy start as the leader struggled to articulate why Canadians needed an election campaign in the dead of summer — and in the middle of the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Opponents, like Singh did in Wednesday’s French-language debate, have tried to paint Trudeau’s decision to trigger an election as an “egoistic” power grab.
Trudeau’s rivals have seen the election call itself as a clear vulnerability and have forced him to defend his decision.
The Liberal leader has countered that the election call was necessary because the next government will need a mandate to deal with the “big decisions” facing the country as it recovers from Covid’s double-barreled health and economic crises.
As perhaps a sign that questions over the election call still sting, Trudeau used his opening remarks to explain his reasoning for the election — yet again.
“You’re going to hear some very, very different — and very strong ideas that are radically different — about how we’re going to move forward through this pandemic to end it and how we’re going to build back better,” he said. “Those decisions are going to be taken by your government now, in the coming weeks this fall.”
During the first two debates of the campaign, party leaders focused their offensives on Trudeau. The leaders shifted Wednesday from criticizing his move to call a snap election to attacking his six-year-old record as prime minister. They hammered him on what they charged were his failures in a number of areas — from falling short of climate targets, to not ending all boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities, to allowing the cost of living to rise.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday night’s event:
Debate commission should be abolished: The first segment that kicked off the debate also set the tone for the next two hours: noisy and disjointed. Trudeau, asked again to justify calling an election during a fourth wave of Covid-19 cases, used his time to sell his party to Canadians as one with a plan to “build back better.”
The Leaders’ Debates Commission organized the set of French and English debates in 2019. A new motley crew of speakers shared the stage this year, making it hard to focus on leaders with additional personalities competing for attention. It’s a stark contrast to the debate format used by French-language broadcaster TVA, a single moderator style set-up praised by many political watchers.
“This debate lacks continuity; having only one moderator would work better because it could help create a greater sense of continuity,” Daniel Béland, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, wrote on Twitter. “The debate’s format is so fragmented the discussion doesn’t flow well at all. Hopefully this format will never be used again.”
Paul stands her ground: The debate gave most Canadians their first impressions of the rookie Green leader, who was poised and firm as she challenged the status quo in Ottawa’s bubble.
Paul, who succeeded Elizabeth May as party leader last year, entered the debate with plenty of baggage including an MP who crossed the aisle and months-long caucus in-fighting.
The international human rights lawyer is the first Black Canadian and first Jewish woman to lead a federal party. She was able to delineate herself from the political incumbents on stage during a high-stakes debate to connect with an audience of millions.
At one point, she linked concerns in Canada over the rising cost of living to the need for a “change in the culture” in Ottawa.
“It is so painful for me because I’ve had the experience of, again, having my grandparents work until they were 75 and living six [people] in 800 square feet and wondering how we were going to feed ourselves some nights,” Paul said. “I’ve had that experience and I know that one day of delay is too much.”
Don’t throw tomatoes at Beijing: Trudeau offered some details behind his careful approach to the biggest — and most delicate — foreign policy issue faced by his government: the fate of the “two Michaels.”
Trudeau has taken flak for failing to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China on spying accusations since December 2018.
Their cases are widely seen as connected to senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s battle in a Canadian court against a U.S. extradition request. Chinese authorities rounded up Kovrig and Spavor nine days after Canadian police arrested Meng in Vancouver on the U.S. extradition warrant. Meng denies wrongdoing and is fighting her extradition.
“Canada’s voice has been absent,” O’Toole said as he criticized Trudeau for not doing enough to pressure Beijing with actions like banning Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks. “We should be leaders for our values, sir, and you’ve let the Michaels down, and we have to get serious with China.”
Trudeau responded by expressing the need for a more-nuanced strategy.
“If you want to get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific,” Trudeau said. “That is what Mr. [former Conservative prime minister Stephen] Harper tried for a number of years and didn’t get anywhere. You need to engage in sophisticated ways with our allies, every step of the way.”
Debating climate plans: The format of the debate did not allow substantive discussion beyond party talking points.
On climate, being the incumbent, Trudeau had an inherent advantage heading into the election because his government has been the beneficiary of years of advice, reports and recommendations from bureaucrats and policy experts. But every incumbent government has to make a case for reelection and all parties pounced on the Liberals emissions reduction record.
The NDP and Greens have signaled more ambitious emissions reductions targets than the Liberals at 50 percent and 60 percent cuts, respectively, below 2005 levels by 2030. But the devil’s in the details, and both Singh and Paul did not take the opportunity in front of them to show their climate math to convince viewers that their targets are credible.
Neither parties have tabled a costed platform.
O’Toole, whose party has tabled a comprehensive climate plan to appeal to moderates, repeated that a Conservative government would hit Paris goals, despite a promise to backpedal on Canada’s increased emissions reductions target.