“Why did Mr. Trudeau choose to launch an election? It was to get a majority,” New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said in the opening minutes of the French-language debate as he and the others tried to frame the election call as a power grab by Trudeau.
“And why? Is this majority to help people? I say ‘no.’”
Canada’s four main party leaders — Trudeau, Singh, the Bloc Québécois’ Yves-François Blanchet and the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole — went toe to toe in the debate, which was broadcast by TVA from Montreal.
Trudeau’s effort to recapture a majority of the seats in the House of Commons hinges in a big way on his party’s ability to retain and, very likely, expand its seat count in Quebec.
The exchanges: He argued Thursday night that an immediate election was necessary because decisions are needed right away about vaccination policies, how Canada will finish with the pandemic and how the country will rebuild. He said in the months ahead Canada must move more quickly to address climate change and the housing crisis.
“We learned how to manage a crisis during this pandemic, we must apply this ambition to the other crises we’re facing,” said Trudeau, whose majority hold on the seats in the House of Commons was reduced to a minority in the fall 2019 election.
O’Toole later said: “We have to finish the pandemic before an election, Mr. Trudeau. It’s not the time for an election — it’s just for you.”
At one point in Thursday’s debate, Trudeau said if the Sept. 20 vote delivers another minority government Canadians would “probably” end up with another election 18 months later.
Le contexte: The event was the first of three leaders’ debates scheduled for the campaign, which is expected to heat up after Labor Day as Canadians return from their summer holidays and really start scrutinizing their options.
So far, opinion polls have suggested it’s been a difficult start for Trudeau — and a better-than-expected launch for O’Toole.
At the outset of the campaign, polls showed Trudeau with a big lead over his opponents in voter support, putting his Liberals in reach of regaining the majority position in government that they lost in 2019.
But numerous surveys in the last week have shown his Liberals are now neck and neck with the Conservatives.
The weight of French debates: Even if it takes days for pollsters to begin to understand the influence of the TVA debate, recent history suggests it could have a major impact on the election.
Canada’s second-most populous province, has 78 — or nearly a quarter — of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.
Quebec’s unpredictable francophone voters are known to swing their support between parties and boast the numbers to alter the nationwide results.
French-language debates tend to put a big emphasis on Quebec-related issues, but analysts have found that they have made a mark on recent Canadian election campaigns.
In the 2019 election, the Liberals won 35 seats in Quebec, the Bloc 32, the Conservatives 10 and the NDP was reduced to just one.
L’influence: In 2011, the NDP rode an unexpected surge of support to win 59 out of Quebec’s 75 seats at the time. The Liberals took 40 seats in 2015 and, in 2019, a resurgent Bloc more than tripled its seats.
Pollster Éric Grenier shared an analysis Thursday that highlighted the recent significance of Canada’s French-language debates.
Grenier wrote in The Writ that in 2011 the NDP picked up six points during the week after the French-language consortium debate. In the subsequent elections, the French debates also had big effects.
“Both the 2015 and 2019 debates moved the polls by 10 points for parties, against the NDP in 2015 and toward the Bloc in 2019,” he wrote.
Here are four takeaways from the exchanges in Thursday’s debate:
Trudeau kept O’Toole in his cross-hairs: The Liberal leader, who often spoke quickly and appeared energized during the debate, kept much of his focus on attacking O’Toole’s plan.
At one point, when the leaders took a question on long-term care, Trudeau quickly pivoted to take aim at the Conservatives’ platform for not being costed.
In another exchange, O’Toole didn’t answer a direct question from Blanchet on whether all Conserative candidates had been vaccinated. Trudeau said all Liberal candidates were vaccinated except for one due to health reasons — and he called O’Toole’s refusal to say whether Conservative candidates were vaccinated a “lack of leadership.”
O’Toole lays it on thick for Quebec: O’Toole, the only rookie leader in the debate, spent much of the event talking up his promises to respect Quebec’s jurisdictions and further support its autonomy in areas like immigration.
He also brought up his recently released “Contract with Quebecers” numerous times and repeated how he intended to work closely with popular, nationalist Quebec Premier François Legault.
“Quebecers need a partner, not a papa in Ottawa,” O’Toole, who tried to present a calm demeanor during some of the tense exchanges, said in one back-and-forth with Trudeau. “I invite Quebec’s nationalists to read my contract.”
It remains to be seen if his overtures will produce electoral results.
Quebec, with its majority francophone population and distinct culture from the rest of Canada, is also far more politically complex.
Parties often chase votes in the province with promises of more autonomy for Quebec. But such efforts can sometimes clash with the efforts of political leaders to generate support in other regions of the country.
Contentious climate: The climate crisis made a brief appearance 90 minutes into the debate, mostly putting Trudeau on defense over his government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018.
The Liberals have maintained, as they did when the topic came up in the last election, that the project will help create jobs in western Canada as well as potential revenue that can be used to address climate change.
Blanchet scoffed at the logic, suggesting it to be pointless during a climate crisis. He told Trudeau that taking money from Trans Mountain to pay for environmental initiatives is akin to believing one way to mend a broken leg is to break the other.
What to do about Canada’s big-ticket spending: The moderator challenged Trudeau on the Liberal platform, which outlined C$78 billion in new commitments on top of hundreds of billions spent by his government through the pandemic.
Trudeau stressed there are always limits to the spending, but that the pandemic-related support would continue as necessary.
O’Toole tried to defend his economic plan from challenges, saying he would be able to balance the federal budget in a decade without cuts because his program would “grow the economy.”
Blanchet, who came to the debate with a higher energy comparable at times to Trudeau’s, said the other leaders’ plans fail to address a serious worker shortage and productivity issues.
Singh, who appeared relaxed during the debate with little to lose in Quebec and, perhaps, little to win, said the NDP would force the “ultra-rich” to pay more and to invest in people.
What’s next: Thursday’s debate was just a warm up for the leaders. They will meet again on the debate stage twice next week — once more in French and once in English.
Zi-Ann Lum contributed to this report.