Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, facing potential defeat in a September 20 election, used a key leaders’ debate on Thursday evening to take aim at his main rival, portraying him as weak and ineffective.
The nationally-televised primetime debate was Trudeau’s last opportunity to face-off in person against the Tories’ rookie captain Erin O’Toole in a bid to sway voters.
For two hours on Thursday evening, federal party leaders from the Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, Green and Bloc Québécois parties sparred in the only official English-language debate before the vote.
Party leaders debated in French on Wednesday evening.
Polls show O’Toole’s Conservative Party has a chance of winning the election and ending six years of Liberal rule.
Trudeau called the vote two years early as a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
Trudeau, sometimes looking agitated, rounded several times on O’Toole, who has had trouble making himself known to Canadians since taking over his party a year ago.
O’Toole says he will offer serious leadership to clean up after what he calls a corrupt, incompetent and spendthrift Trudeau government.
Trudeau accuses O’Toole of harbouring an extremist agenda and not being serious on topics such as climate change.
Trudeau also favours mandates to ensure people are inoculated against Covid-19, a move O’Toole says goes too far.
“The problem with Mr O’Toole and his principles is, he says all the right sounding things and he’s working on reassuring everyone that he’s right there as a strong leader, but he can’t convince his candidates to get vaccinated,” said Trudeau.
Polls show O’Toole with a slight lead amid voter unhappiness with Trudeau’s decision to call the election early.
The leadership debate was the only one of three in English, spoken by two-thirds of Canada’s 38mn people, and is traditionally seen as a key means of influencing voters.
However, Nanos Research pollster Nik Nanos said by e-mail “there were no major gaffes nor any knock-out punches from any of the parties ... this wasn’t a game changer”.
Trudeau spoke over the other four party chiefs several times, forcing the moderator to cut him off.
Darrell Bricker, chief executive officer of Ipsos Public Affairs, said he did not see anything from Trudeau or O’Toole that would change the direction of their campaigns.
“When he (Trudeau) did try to go at O’Toole, it came off as very hot and frantic. O’Toole wasn’t a huge factor tonight but that’s OK,” he said by e-mail.
Trudeau is fond of noting that earlier this year most Conservative lawmakers voted in favour of draft legislation that would have banned some abortions.
The initiative failed.
O’Toole insisted he was in charge and would not bow to the views of legislators with hard line social views.
“I am driving the bus to make sure we get this country back on track. And I’m here to defend the rights of all Canadians,” he said.
O’Toole conceded that in the past, Conservatives had not done enough to combat emissions of greenhouse gases and needed to win back public trust.
Turning to foreign policy, he criticised Trudeau for calling an election on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, and an unsettled row with China.
The plight of two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, was raised.
Kovrig and Spavor have been detained by China since December 2018 following Ottawa’s arrest on a US warrant of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.
“You let the Michaels down,” O’Toole said, addressing Trudeau.
He also said veterans had called for a plan to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the Canadian military months before Kabul fell.
“When Afghanistan was falling there were 1,200 Canadians and hundreds more translators and others waiting for help from Canada,” O’Toole said.
“Mr Trudeau should not have called this election, you should have gotten the job done in Afghanistan,” he said.
Annamie Paul, the new Green leader, also questioned Trudeau’s judgment in calling the election and whether he fully grasped the deteriorating situation in Kabul.
“It seems like we got better information on our smartphones [about the situation in Afghanistan] than Mr Trudeau got from our entire intelligence service,” she said.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-wing New Democratic party, accused Trudeau of having the worst climate change record of any G7 nation.
Trudeau touted a recent non-partisan assessment of the parties’ climate plans, which graded the Liberals as both the least costly and most effective.
“How is it that the experts that have rated our plan on climate to be an A, have rated your plan to be an F?” Trudeau said to Singh.
Singh replied: “I rate your track record an F, Mr Trudeau.”
A three-day rolling Ekos phone poll of 1,365 adults released on Thursday showed the Conservatives at 33.6% public support, versus 30.7% for the Liberals and 15.7% for the smaller left-leaning New Democrats.
The poll had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
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