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Election 2019
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Federal Politics

Battle Options for Monday’s Election Debaters

Where each leader is vulnerable, and could pounce. Expect a wild one.

Michael Harris 6 Oct 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The moment has finally arrived in Election 2019.

Monday evening is high noon for Canada’s national political leaders.

As every classic movie buff knows, High Noon was about facing down your foes with everything on the line.

This short election campaign has at times seemed interminably long — quirky, unfocused, and partisan in a sad way. That throws the spotlight on the nationally televised English language debate even more dramatically than is normally the case.

Although there is also an official leader’s French debate to come, it is the only event where a mass audience will get to see all the leaders face off on the same stage. That makes this event monumentally important. What will happen here?

My guess?

Despite promises from the organizers that it will not turn into a free-for-all, there is virtually no chance that the debate will be a policy forum weighing the merits of competing visions of the country, as I will explain.

The more likely outcome is that the English debate will descend into a master class in snark. As Jean Le Carré says, “You can’t do mob oratory with the voice of reason, because the devil always has the best lines.”

The person with the most to gain from a corseted and choreographed debate, and the most to lose under the mud-wrestling scenario is Justin Trudeau.

First, there is the before and after image of the PM between 2015 and now. That image is mixed and often unflattering — some would argue permanently tainted. Trudeau’s opponents will contrast his aspirational goals in 2015 as a candidate with the political baggage he has accumulated as PM.

It may be all socks and selfies when Trudeau preaches to the converted. But the PM is in for a face-rub from his rivals under the pitiless lights of television to defend his spotty record.

Trudeau’s exposed flanks

Here is the list of sins and misdemeanors you can expect Trudeau will be confronted with in a debate that will feature five questions from Canadians.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer will likely lead the charge in accusing the PM of lying to Canadians about the pressure he put on his former attorney-general Jody Wilson Raybould, to spare Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin from enduring a criminal trial.

Scheer’s candidacy could die under the TV lights with a tepid performance in this event. Having come across as an uninspiring insurance broker’s assistant in the French TVA debate, he must exhibit more tooth and claw in this one.

The Conservative leader has no shortage of ammunition to trash Trudeau.

The PM has already been damned by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion for being the first Canadian PM to break the conflict of interest laws in his interference in the SNC-Lavalin case. Expect Scheer to cite Dion’s report, and remind viewers that this is the second time Trudeau has violated the law. The aim will be to assert two things: Trudeau can’t be trusted and isn’t as advertised.

The Conservative leader will also remind Canadians that Trudeau failed to balance the federal budget as promised and has now abandoned that goal altogether, according to the party’s 2019 platform.

Scheer may pillory Trudeau for his iffy performance on the world stage as the face of Canada’s foreign policy. There is that cartoon trip to India, where the PM was mocked as Mr. Dress Up for his insistence on wearing local costumes.

The Trudeau government has presided over the meltdown of the relationship with China after arresting Meng Wanzhou, a top Chinese business executive. That arrest, done at the behest of the Americans, has led to bans against Canadian agricultural products, and the detention of two Canadian citizens who are still being held in China.

And there is the issue of the PM’s sometimes dubious judgement. Who would take a free trip to a billionaire’s island and not realize that in so doing, he makes mincemeat of his claim that he is a champion of the middle class, and the conflict of interest guidelines?

The biggest issue on Monday night could be the PM’s over-hyped commitment to fighting climate change, and his pseudo-environmentalism: Elizabeth May of the Greens will likely be the candidate to remind Canadians that Trudeau bought a pipeline that trumped his rhetorical commitment to an energy transition away from fossil fuels.

She might also remind him that he has still not stopped subsidies to energy companies as he promised in 2015. Even the emission limits Trudeau accepted in Paris were not his, but Stephen Harper’s.

851px version of Greta Thunberg and Justin Trudeau
Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg met with Justin Trudeau last month, telling him — and young voters — his Liberal government needed to do more. Photo by Ryan Remiorz, the Canadian Press.

May will almost certainly bring up the fact that the Green Party is the only one committed to meeting the emission targets on the timetable set by the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change. (The NDP has promised to cut emissions almost in half by 2030).

She will likely characterize Trudeau’s lethargic plan to reduce emissions by 2050 as too little, too late, echoing teen activist Greta Thunberg’s demand for the PM to do more.

May’s question might be this: Does the politician who promised science-based policy agree with the IPCC scientists when they say mankind has just a little more than a decade to get it right on carbon emissions?

Or is Trudeau as bad as Stephen Harper, who thought it was crazy to regulate the energy sector and never did as PM? Is the pipeline buyer the real Trudeau, and the green Trudeau a cardboard cutout?

May was also on the special Commons committee on electoral reform that recommended a referendum on changing how Canada elects governments. The Liberal government turned it down, despite candidate Trudeau’s unequivocal pledge that 2015 would be the last Canadian federal election under the first-past-the-post system.

The Green Party leader might also challenge Trudeau on his feminist credentials, given how he dumped both Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott for standing up to his illegal meddling in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

And then there is human rights.

This is a PM who talks a good game, but wilts when the chips are down on painful choices. Jagmeet Singh could be the leader who reminds Trudeau that following through on Stephen Harper’s arms sale to Saudi Arabia shows who he is really is: a pragmatic politician who thinks the integrity of honouring contracts trumps standing up for human rights.

Given that he couldn’t get a government job in Quebec and keep his turban, Singh is likely to categorically oppose Bill C-21 and invite the PM to clearly denounce the provincial legislation with a commitment to oppose it.

On social policy, Singh may well make the argument that Trudeau is not really a progressive at all, just a typical Liberal who works both sides of the canal on major issues. The NDP leader will promote his party’s wealth tax and blast the PM over making billions for billionaires while ignoring the plight of poor and marginalized Canadians.

Singh may also take Trudeau to task over the government’s decision to appeal a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that would pay First Nations children who were taken into care from their communities since 2006, $40,000 each in compensation.

That is a universe away from Trudeau’s oft-repeated claim that no file is more important to him than the one dealing with Indigenous Canadians. Count on Singh to ask how the goal can be “reconciliation” when you’re going to court over the compensation of disadvantaged children?

And if there is one candidate who can wax eloquent on the subject of Trudeau’s lamentable brown and blackface costumes of his youth, it is Singh. Singh has experienced discrimination firsthand and knows that there is nothing either forgivable or funny about it.

Singh will be able to make that charge credibly for another reason: Trudeau has dithered badly on the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After investigations, both the CIA and the United Nations concluded that Saudi leader Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the gruesome killing.

Trudeau neither cancelled Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Kingdom, nor imposed sanctions. A year later, the best Trudeau has come up with is a plan to wait on Canada’s allies before making a response to murder most foul.

Singh might also highlight Trudeau’s ethically bankrupt plans to attend the G-20 summit in Riyadh in 2020, murder or no murder.

Two other adversaries will be on the stage, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada.

It is tempting to underestimate what they may bring to the debate. The Bloc only runs candidates in Quebec, and Bernier is bringing up the rear in the polls as a Conservative maverick who jumped the corral fence after losing the CPC leadership.

But that very outsider status could bring fireworks, from Bernier on the bonafides of Andrew Scheer’s leadership, and from Blanchet on the failure of all federal parties to advance the interests of Quebec. There could also be a testy exchange between Jagmeet Singh and Blanchet over Bill-C21.

Trudeau’s potential counter-offensive

Though Trudeau will be the target of his adversaries, he has two things in his favour: Zingers of his own to exploit the sins and misdemeanors of his opponents, and the sympathy that usually flows to a sitting prime minister who is being gang-tackled by all the others on live TV.

Look for the PM to parry ethical attacks from Andrew Scheer, by reminding the Tory leader that he kept word of his dual Canadian American citizenship from voters, even though his party savaged Stephane Dion and Tom Mulcair for holding two passports and nationalities..Why was Scheer silent when those two men were being trashed by the Harperites?

851px version of AndrewScheerStephenHarper.jpg
Expect Trudeau to debate, at times, someone not there — Stephen Harper, whose policies he’ll argue were the same as Scheer is selling. Photo by Adrian Wyld, the Canadian Press.

Trudeau may remind Scheer that the new Tory party is not new at all, just the Harper agenda recycled by a new front man, a puppet mouthing the same policies that handed the party a bruising defeat in 2015.

If attacked on integrity issues by the Green Party leader, Trudeau might bristle that he has no lessons to learn on integrity from a leader who photo-shops her coffee cup to appear politically correct, or who comes up with economic policies that some experts see as fiscally irresponsible.

The one candidate that Trudeau cannot easily attack is Jagmeet Singh. The NDP leader hasn’t been around long enough to accumulate a dirty laundry list. He has also faced racist attacks during the campaign. The PM must be cautious in how he rebuts anything Singh might have to say on the subject of Trudeau’s brown and blackface.

Debate within the debate: Singh vs. May

The side battle of the night is for the bronze medal in this election. It will pit Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May against one another. May will likely accuse Singh of sounding false alarms about what the Green Party stands for on policies like abortion.

Singh might reply, as he has already publicly charged, that May has a lot to explain about accepting racist candidates into the party in places like New Brunswick, where several former NDP supporters moved over to the Greens.

And given that the parties of May and Singh have by most analyses the more ambitious platforms on the climate crisis, they will be ready to throw down on whose is most detailed and doable.

Night of the big spenders

The reason this debate will be closer to mudwrestling than a policy conversation is that the 2019 election is probably the most brazen attempt by all parties to buy votes with a dizzying array of promises.

They are virtually impossible to cost and comprehend, despite the efforts of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to do just that. There are so many variables, even with the PBO costings, the electorate is left dealing with voodoo numbers.

That is a little unusual. Party platforms usually create clarity in an election, staking out positions, and pointing out differences between parties. Debates have traditionally reinforced that process of self-definition by the parties, which in turn guides voters in their choices.

But this time out, the debate will likely be far more important than the platforms in deciding votes. That’s because there is so much political candy on display, the loot bags being offered to voters so jam-packed, the result may end up being confused cynicism rather than grateful enthusiasm.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are offering major tax-cuts and bonbons that will shrink federal revenues by tens of billions of dollars. The NDP and Green Party both plan to increase corporate taxes and government spending. A tide of red ink is coming in.

The Liberals have promised everything from an undersea tunnel linking Newfoundland to Labrador, to cash for camping; a 10 per cent increase to Old Age Security benefits costed at $1.6 billion in the first year; $6 billion for pharmacare over four years; $250 million to combat guns and gangs; $150 million for UN Peacekeeping, and another $150 million to create the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government.

Under the Liberals, there are millions more for first-time homebuyers in pricey markets like Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto. Over four years, that is a whopping $57 billion worth of promises, and a deficit of $27 billion in year one of a new Trudeau government.

You get the picture. Three slightly mortgaged chickens in every pot — and deficits for as far as the eye can see. As for the mounting debt, crickets.

It is the same story with Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives.

The Conservative Party’s universal tax cut, aimed at reducing the rate on income under $47,630 from 15 to 13.75 per cent, would cost Ottawa $6.1 billion in lost revenues.

The Conservatives have not released a final costing of their platform. With all the other promised tax cuts, the best Scheer can promise is what Trudeau did in 2015 — a balanced budget within five years. Trudeau did not deliver on that pledge.

If you’re looking for black ink in any new government’s books, you won’t find it in either the NDP or Green platforms. Both parties are offering tax hikes and increased spending.

Jagmeet Singh is pledging a three-point hike in the corporate tax rate, and a one per cent tax on wealth over $20 million. That in part is how he proposes to pay for expensive promises such as universal pharmacare and immediate free dental care for four million Canadians.

Like the Conservatives, the NDP has yet to release a full costing of its promises. Nor has the party so far set a date for a return to a balanced budget in the unlikely event it should form the government after Oct. 21.

And like the NDP, Elizabeth May and the Green Party are leaving changes to personal tax rates to the Liberals and Conservatives. May is promising a six per cent increase in the corporate tax rate, a tax on financial transactions, and a surtax on bank profits.

To implement promises like a national pharmacare program which will cost $26.7 billion in 2020, the Greens want to increase government spending by 21.5 per cent in the first year of office, should they win.

The party says that although that represents a $74-billion increase, tax revenues will catch up with expenditures by her third year in office. The Parliamentary Budget Officer isn’t so sure.

So here is the skinny. Big, incomprehensible numbers every which way a voter looks when it comes to the party platforms. As a recent National Post headline put it, “How did elections become meaningless, drunken, spending frenzies?”

How much easier it is to decide one’s vote by watching who lands the best shots in a two-hour televised face-to-facer. The platforms confuse without entertaining, or truly informing. The English debate is High Noon without the six guns.

The last politician standing wins.  [Tyee]

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