Canada election: rivals force Justin Trudeau on to defensive in leaders’ debate

The prime minister was under fire for his record on climate change, Indigenous affairs and economic hardship ahead of 20 September poll

Justin Trudeau has been forced to defend his government’s plans for fighting climate change, Canada’s fractured relationship with Indigenous peoples and a growing affordability crisis in the country as the prime minister faced off with contenders ahead of the federal election.

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 20 September vote. Party leaders debated in French on Wednesday evening.

Trudeau, who has been prime minister for six years, has been on the defensive after calling an election during the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Early polling suggests the decision for a snap election has not been popular among Canadians. On stage, party leaders hewed to that theme, accusing the prime minister of putting citizens at risk while engineering an election for his own political gain.

“Leadership is about putting others first, not yourself,” said Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, pointing out that Trudeau called the election as Canada was scrambling to evacuate people from Afghanistan.

Annamie Paul, the new Green leader, also questioned the prime minister’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. The only woman leading a federal party, Paul also repeated her attacks on Trudeau’s record on feminism, suggesting he pushes out “strong women” within his party.

“I won’t take caucus management lessons from you,” responded Trudeau, a reference to strife and disarray within the Green party and a recent collapse in the polls. On Thursday, Paul likened the recent months to “crawling over a lot of broken glass”.

After weeks of campaigning, the prime minister’s Liberal party holds an edge in seat projections but narrowly trails the Conservatives in the popular vote.

Despite his lead, O’Toole has been forced to reckon with elements of his party who are anti-vaccine and anti-abortion.

“Mr O’Toole, who says he wants to get all of Canada vaccinated to 90% in the coming two months, can’t even convince his own candidates to get vaccinated to 90%,” said Trudeau.

On Thursday, the Conservative leader was asked who controlled his party’s policy.

“I am driving the bus,” O’Toole said, stressing that he’s personally “pro-choice”.

Following a summer of record wildfires in the western region of the country, climate change was a key component early in the debate.

O’Toole attacked the prime minister’s record, suggesting the Liberals have ambitious goals but have never attained any of them.

“Mr Trudeau always forgets one fact: he has never made a target for climate change,” said O’Toole. “He has ambition, he doesn’t have achievement.”

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the leftwing 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.”

The NDP leader, who hopes to improve on his party’s weak performance in the last election, also attacked Trudeau on his government’s failure to provide clean drinking water in all First Nations communities and compensation for residential schools.

You can’t take a knee one day, when you’re going to take kids to court the next day,” he said. “That’s not leadership.”

With a surge in popularity this election cycle, Singh worked to cast himself as a third option for Canadian voters.

“We just heard Mr Trudeau and Mr O’Toole argue about who is worse and honestly, it’s a tough question to answer,” he said. “Let me tell you, you’re not stuck with these two. Better is possible.”

Absent from the stage was Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada. Despite being present in the 2019 election debate, Bernier did not meet the criteria for participating in the debates. Dozens of his supporters rallied outside the debate venue on Thursday evening, protesting his absence. The party, which has protested against masking and vaccine mandates, has disrupted Trudeau’s campaign events in recent days and seen a spike in polling.

Contributor

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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