OTTAWA — Opposition leaders attacked Justin Trudeau’s economic record Thursday during the first debate of the federal election campaign — with the Liberal leader deciding not to be there to defend himself.
Trudeau gave the Maclean’s/Citytv debate a pass, preferring to spend his time at a rally in Edmonton.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer lambasted Trudeau for running up massive deficits, with no end in sight, despite promising in 2015 that he would return the federal budget to balance after a few years of modest red ink.
If re-elected, Scheer warned, a Liberal government will raise taxes to pay off the accumulating debt. He promised that a Conservative government would “live within its means″ and return to budgetary balance within five years.
“By getting back to balanced budgets, we can lower taxes and put more money in your pockets, so that you can get ahead,” Scheer said. “That is what this election is all about: who do you trust to make life more affordable and help you get ahead.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May attacked Trudeau from a different angle: for not doing enough to tax the wealthiest individuals and corporations.
Watch the full debate:
The opposition leaders also turned on one another at various points, with the sharpest exchanges coming between Singh and May, whose parties are locked in a fight for distant third place, according to recent public opinion polls.
Singh said New Democrats and Greens have a lot in common but outlined four areas of disagreement. Unlike the Greens, he said the NDP unequivocally supports a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, has a “solid” position on national unity, believes workers can’t be left behind and would never prop up a minority Conservative government led by Scheer — seizing on issues where the Green position has been somewhat murky.
“Excuse me, those were absurd statements,” May retorted.
May also accused the NDP of promulgating “a big fat lie” about her idea of making Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, if found guilty on corruption charges, build infrastructure in Indigenous communities. Singh, in turn, called May’s idea “ludicrous.”
And both Singh and May went after Scheer over Conservative senators’ blocking a bill that would have ensured Canadian laws conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It stalled in the Senate and died with the election call.
Scheer defended his senators, arguing that Conservatives were concerned the bill would have required free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous communities for any resource project, effectively giving a veto to a single community that could hold all the others “hostage.” May and Singh chided him for what they called disrespectful and inappropriate language.
However, Trudeau was the opposition leaders’ primary target. Debate on Indigenous issues veered into the SNC-Lavalin affair, with Scheer taking the opportunity to remind viewers that Trudeau is the only prime minister to have been found to have broken ethics law and accusing him of trying to obstruct justice.
Even before they took to the stage, with its empty spot for Trudeau, opposition leaders were accusing the Liberal leader of dodging the debate because he’s afraid to run on his record.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau stuck by his decision to participate only in two official debates next month and a third in French hosted by TVA. And he suggested he’d prefer to be on the campaign trail in B.C. and Alberta anyway.
“The opportunity to get out across this country, speak with Canadians, listen to them, and talk about how we are going to build a better future for everyone and how we’re going to choose a better future for everyone is at the core of what this election is all about for me,” he said in Victoria, where he announced an expansion of a program to help first-time homebuyers.
“I’m going to keep doing that.”
Later Thursday, while his rivals were taking to the debate stage in Toronto, Trudeau was revving up party faithful at the rally in Edmonton, reminding Albertans of everything his government has done to help them weather the plunge in world oil prices, including buying the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
“I’ve made a point of coming to Alberta, and to Edmonton, many, many times since I became prime minister because this province, its people, matter,” he said, promising that a Liberal government “will always have your back.”
Scheer and Singh had campaigned in and around Toronto earlier in the day.
After an event promoting the Conservative pledge to cut taxes on parental-leave benefits, Scheer said he wasn’t surprised Trudeau would be a no-show at the debate, given the recent Globe and Mail reports that have thrust the SNC-Lavalin affair back into the headlines. But the Liberal leader is also gun-shy when it comes to talking about Canada’s place in the world, he added.
“I note that this evening, a part of the debate will be focused on foreign affairs,” said Scheer. “And if there’s one area where Justin Trudeau’s failures have been so visible to Canadians, so evident that Canadians can immediately understand, it’s on the subject of foreign affairs.”
Singh said he was disappointed Trudeau had decided to skip the event, as Canadians expect him to show up and defend his record.
“His record is pretty abysmal but that doesn’t mean he should give up on the debate,” he said after an event in Brampton, Ont.
Watch: Justin Trudeau’s term as prime minister, summed up in two minutes. Story continues below.
Singh launched his first federal campaign from the Brampton area in 2011, losing to a Conservative. In 2015, the area’s five ridings were all scooped up by the Liberals. On Thursday, he fielded questions — including one in Punjabi, which he speaks fluently — about why Liberal supporters should pivot his way this time around.
He promised to be a prime minister who responds directly to the area’s concerns, highlighted by his promise of the day: funds to build and expand hospitals to serve the booming population of the area.
Scheer was also in challenging political territory Thursday, the riding of York Centre, previously represented by such Liberal luminaries as hockey player Ken Dryden and Art Eggleton, a former federal cabinet minister.
The Tories held the riding briefly from 2011 to 2015 and are trying to win it again with candidate Rachel Willson. Prior to making the jump into politics, she served as the assistant director of faith-based group MY Canada, which opposes abortion. A video of her discussing her pro-life views was circulated online by the Liberals shortly before Scheer and Willson’s appearance, putting them on the defensive.
Scheer would personally oppose any effort to reopen the abortion debate, he repeated. He has also said he would allow free votes on issues of conscience, something Willson said she was grateful for.
Asked whether she’d seek to introduce any anti-abortion legislation if elected, Willson said she plans to focus on issues she’s hearing about at the doors, like affordability.
The Greens were dealing with their own candidate issues, moving swiftly to remove a candidate in an Ontario riding. A social media post had shown Erik Schomann helping roast a pig, with the caption suggesting the leftovers would be mailed to Muslims. Members of white supremacist groups often suggest mailing pigs as a way to threaten Muslims. Pork is forbidden in Islam.
While May was in Thursday night’s debate, People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier was excluded from the line-up.
He took his campaign to his home riding of Beauce, in Quebec, the lone seat his party currently holds. He said it was funny that the satirical Rhinoceros Party has found someone with the same name to run against him in his hometown, but feels voters are smart enough to make the right choice.
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