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Trudeau targeted in English leaders’ debate

OTTAWA — As Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer battled in Monday night’s leaders’ debate over who has the better climate-change policy, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh told viewers they don’t have to choose between “Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.”

Elizabeth May, whose Green party is fighting with the NDP for third place, framed the choice differently.

“At this point, Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you’re not going to be prime minister,” she said bluntly at one point. She predicted that Trudeau’s Liberals will win at least a minority government so “voting for Green MPs is your very best guarantee, Canada, that you don’t get the government you least want.”

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Regardless of the question, Singh took every opportunity to repeat his favourite theme: that Liberals and Conservatives alike pander to wealthy corporations whereas the NDP will fight for ordinary Canadians with investments in child care, pharmacare and dental care.

In a debate that very often featured cross-talk from leaders who wouldn’t give each other an inch, and after-the-bell jabs right before a tumbling roster of moderators moved on to new topics, Singh cracked the most jokes.

More than once, someone called him “Mr. Scheer” by mistake; after the second time, Singh said he’d even worn a bright orange turban so they’d be easy to tell apart.

But in the main, like the other leaders, Singh was deadly serious about his targets.

“Mr. Trudeau does not have the courage to take on the insurance and the pharmaceutical lobbyists who don’t want this to happen,” Singh said. “You vote New Democrats, we’re going to make sure we’re going to make these things happen because we don’t work for the powerful and wealthy … We work for you.”

May prayed publicly that Trudeau would not be re-elected, with a plan to fight climate change that in her view doesn’t move quickly enough.

His government has done more on climate change than any Canadian government ever has, Trudeau shot back, and has made major policy changes, such as introducing a new child benefit, that have lifted thousands of families out of poverty.

Scheer called Trudeau a phoney and a fraud.

“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “You know, he’s very good at pretending things. He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”

Scheer accused Trudeau of wearing masks on Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and on his concern for middle-class Canadians.

“Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phoney and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country.”

The format of the debate gave Trudeau no immediate opportunity to respond to Scheer’s attack, but he repeatedly went after Scheer at other times for his personal anti-abortion views and for promoting tax cuts for the rich.

Scheer rounded on Trudeau again later, raising the SNC-Lavalin affair. He accused Trudeau of breaking ethics law, shutting down parliamentary inquiries and firing two senior female cabinet ministers who objected to his trying to pressure his former attorney general to halt a criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant.

“Tell me, when did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?” he said.

“Mr. Scheer, the role of a prime minister is stand up for Canadians’ jobs, to stand up for the public interest and that’s what I’ve done,” Trudeau responded.

Trudeau then veered onto one of his favourite themes, accusing Scheer of giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Canadians and conducting himself just like Ontario Premier Doug Ford. He also noted that Scheer hasn’t yet released a fully costed platform, which he called “a disrespect for every Canadian.”

“You’re choosing, just like Doug Ford did, to hide your platform from Canadians and deliver cuts to services and cut taxes for the wealthiest. That’s not the way to grow the economy.”

As for the People’s Party’s Maxime Bernier, Trudeau said, his job on the debate stage was to say the things Scheer only believes privately.

Earlier Monday, the shadow of Ford loomed large over the pre-debate campaign trail as the Liberals kept lumping the Ontario premier together with Scheer, while the Conservatives did their best to pry the two apart.

Front-runners Scheer and Trudeau — deadlocked in the polls, by most accounts — made brief appearances in Ottawa before joining their four other foes in making final preparations for the debate, the first to feature all six leaders.

Trudeau met a group of Ontario teachers in a bid to highlight ongoing tensions between the province’s education workers and the Ford government — tensions that eased ever so slightly the night before when a last-minute agreement saved parents across the province from a potentially disruptive strike.

Ford’s cuts to services such as education have made him unpopular with voters and a drag on federal Conservative fortunes, observers say. Indeed, the premier’s absence from the Scheer campaign became all the more glaring over the weekend when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney glided in to pitch for Scheer in Toronto, including in Ford’s home turf of Etobicoke.

Trudeau has been trying to take advantage, linking Ford to Scheer every chance he can. The premier will oppose and interfere with Liberal efforts to reduce child poverty and increase federal child benefits, Trudeau said, warning Scheer would only make matters worse.

“Right now we’re in an election where the option is to double down on Conservative approaches, which always cut services, looks for austerity and gives tax breaks to the wealthiest instead of to everyone else,” he said.

Scheer, who’d much rather not talk about Ford, called Trudeau’s photo op with teachers a “disgusting” attempt to politicize education. (In the debate later, he suggested Trudeau seek the vacant leadership of the Ontario Liberal party, since he’s so interested in provincial issues.)

Meanwhile, Scheer’s party carefully tried to set itself apart from Ford on at least one issue that has been particularly troublesome for the Ontario leader: autism.

Alberta Conservative Mike Lake issued a written statement saying the Conservatives would establish a national autism strategy with $50 million in funding over five years. Scheer, in Ottawa to promise free admission to Canada’s national museums, breathed nary a word about it.

Lake, whose son Jaden was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, is a well-known global advocate for autism awareness and treatment.

Ford was forced to backpedal in July after his government faced a massive backlash over his plan to rejig funding and give a capped amount directly to parents each year, rather than providing funding to service providers directly with no cap per child.

The issue chased Scheer directly onto his own campaign earlier in September, when a mother approached him while door-knocking in Ford’s Etobicoke area, to ask him to help her child after a northern Ontario treatment program was cancelled due to cuts.

The announcements, however, were just the warmup act for the main event later Monday: a six-way debate confrontation, two weeks out from election day, in a campaign that has so far failed to conjure up much in the way of political momentum or public attention.

Trudeau was expected to spend much of the night on the defensive, facing attacks on his record from all sides.

For Scheer, it was the first time he’s shared the stage with former leadership rival Bernier, who left the Conservatives in 2018 to start up his own People’s Party of Canada. Bernier was not invited to either the debate sponsored and hosted by Maclean’s magazine during the first week of the campaign, nor last week’s French-only debate on TVA in Montreal.

The Conservatives appeared all day to be leading up the debate with a plan to go after the Liberals for an allegedly secret plan to tax profits on home sales made within one, two or three years of purchasing. A new website and multiple tweets to that effect were met by the Liberals with a press conference where Liberal Steven MacKinnon reiterated that Trudeau had kiboshed the proposal, which was mentioned in a 2018 report to Ontario caucus as an idea that had come up in townhall meetings. The Conservatives responded saying MacKinnon had “confirmed” the plan, even though he had said the opposite.

Bernier, whose success depends on wresting disgruntled voters away from the Conservatives, is a wild-card populist whose presence was expected to introduce an element of unpredictability to the proceedings. Scheer, whose performance in the TVA debate has been widely panned, professed to be unconcerned.

“That changes nothing for me, because I am always there to replace Justin Trudeau,” he said.

May has been doing her best to parry an NDP narrative that her candidates are opposed to abortion, but that got a little harder Monday with word that Marthe Lepine had been “removed” as the Green candidate in an eastern Ontario riding for “views about abortion that did not align with (Green party) policy.”

As for the Bloc’s Yves-Francois Blanchet, he was under the least pressure, having little to gain or lose in front of a national audience primarily of English-speaking Canadians. The stakes for the Bloc leader, whose party is running candidates only in Quebec, will be substantially higher during Thursday’s French debate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2019.

— With files from Lee Berthiaume

Joan Bryden and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press