TORONTO — New Democrats and Greens agree on a lot, Jagmeet Singh said near the midpoint of Thursday night’s federal-election debate. Except for four things.
They have in common poll numbers that put them in a tight race for third early in this campaign, each with the potential to hold the balance of power if the Oct. 21 vote produces a minority Parliament. So the NDP’s Singh and the Green party’s Elizabeth May also shared reasons to pound each other down on the debate stage.
Hence Singh’s list: New Democrats are clearly in favour of protecting abortion rights, he said. They’re in favour of national unity. They don’t believe in leaving workers behind. And they wouldn’t back Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as prime minister.
“Those were absurd statements,” May responded, laughing.
“I am not going to go down the little rabbit-hole that Mr. Singh just created,” she added. “None of what he said was true. People can check.”
Third place is an exciting position for the Greens, who had a record two elected MPs in the last Parliament, and a disappointing one for the NDP, who formed the official Opposition from 2011 to 2015 after a stunning breakthrough in Quebec.
With his four-point attack, Singh was going after May for saying she couldn’t, as Green leader, prevent an MP from proposing a private member’s bill to restrict abortion. She has a candidate in Quebec in Pierre Nantel, a defending MP turfed from the NDP, who says he’s a sovereigntist. And she’s said that in a minority Parliament, she’d decide whether to support a larger party based on its commitment to acting to fight climate change — where Singh has said flatly the New Democrats would not back Scheer as prime minister.
May has been in Parliament since 2011 and has led the Greens since 2006, making her the longest-serving current leader of a federal party. Singh is a relative newcomer, going to Parliament in a byelection just this year after becoming NDP leader in 2017. They’ve had few occasions to go head-to-head.
Until Thursday evening, when they stood on either side of Scheer in the Maclean’s/Citytv debate, alongside an empty podium to represent the absent Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau.
Both parties tout their environmentalism. May even told Singh at one point that he sounds a lot like a Green — except for his not committing to a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, which the Greens consider fundamental.
Both advocate dramatically expanded public health care, investments in cities such as public transit, aggressive anti-poverty programs and revisions to the voting system. But the New Democrats are more firmly rooted in unionism and left-of-centre politics where the Greens have climate-change action at the core of their thinking.
That distinction saw May criticizing Singh from the right, including on just how to expand health care.
“I agree with Jagmeet about universal pharmacare. It’s essential, we can’t afford not to do it,” May said early on. But she rounded on Singh over a promise for universal dental coverage in addition to drug coverage. The Greens asked for an estimate on the price from the parliamentary budget officer years ago, she said, and worry that a $30-billion price tag is too rich.
“I don’t see how, Jagmeet, I don’t see how you’ve found the money,” she said.
Singh said the money can be had if Canadians show they want such programs by voting New Democrat.
A bit later, Singh went after May for proposing that SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec engineering firm whose criminal charges have led to such grief for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, make up for any bad behaviour by building clean-water systems in Indigenous communities.
“No profit,” she emphasized. A form of community service.
“It’s a bit ludicrous to suggest that we should build public infrastructure through punishment,” Singh said. It’s too much like a public-private partnership, he said, and these projects are better done by public tenders, with governments taking responsibility for the outcomes.
May objected to an NDP news release several weeks ago saying her proposal showed she’s in favour of privatizing water infrastructure. That wasn’t fair, she said.
“You can just accept it was a bad idea,” Singh suggested.
Then moderator Paul Wells asked Singh whether he still supports a massive project to move liquefied natural gas from Alberta to port in British Columbia. After the New Democrats lost a seat to the Greens in a B.C. byelection, former MP and current candidate Svend Robinson said the party needs to reconsider its backing of the LNG pipeline to Kitimat. What’s Singh’s view now?
“What I support is the fact that British Columbia is a province with one of the best climate-action plans in the country,” Singh answered. “They’ve made sure that everything they do is going to fit into their bold climate plan.”
May wasn’t having it. Singh, the NDP government in British Columbia and the federal Liberals all support the project and they’re wrong to, she said.
“If they understood the peril we are in, as a human family, on this planet, the need to hold global warming to 1.5 C, means you cannot build this pipeline.”
David Reevely, The Canadian Press