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Election 2019
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Federal Politics

He Ducked, He Weaved, He’s Still Standing

Trudeau parried with platitudes a flurry of attacks. The damage report.

Michael Harris 7 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 rumble in Gatineau is over, and despite a concerted attack by his political opponents, Justin Trudeau left the Museum of History exactly as he walked into it — on the cusp of eking out a second term as prime minister on Oct. 21.

They called him a fraud, a failure, a phony, and an unworthy candidate for re-election; they attacked him for his policy on climate change, human rights, and the economy; they said he cared more about his millionaire friends than regular Canadians, but nobody put the PM on the canvas.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

After a poor showing in the recent TVA French debate, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer needed to go on the offensive and damage the PM over his record. He gave it his best shot by getting up close and personal.

Directly referencing the “blackface” scandal, the Conservative leader claimed that Trudeau was “always wearing a mask” and was “very, very good at pretending things.”

Scheer accused the Liberal leader of calling small-business people “tax cheats,” and said that the PM was a “phony and a fraud” who did not deserve to be PM.

Scheer also made derogatory references to Trudeau’s trust fund, and his millionaire friends, and roasted him for firing Canada’s first Indigenous attorney general for “doing her job.”

The Conservative leader raised Trudeau’s ethics-challenged behaviour that landed his government in hot water over interfering in an active criminal case on behalf of the accused, SNC-Lavalin, and his free trip to the Aga Khan’s private island.

“You broke ethics law twice,” he said. “When did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?” Trudeau’s reply? He reminded Scheer and the country that the Conservatives haven’t released their platform yet.

Scheer never staggered his opponent. Instead, he landed only glancing blows, partly because the prime minister stayed beyond his range and was slow to engage — a tactic he employed for most of the debate with all of the leaders. It was rope-a-dope, politics-style.

Ignoring Scheer’s taunts, Trudeau deftly shifted the ground, talking about getting “everyone playing on the same team,” while Conservative leaders like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t “want to do anything” about fighting climate change. He talked about rejecting the politics of fear and division, and a good future for the kids.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the most relaxed looking on stage, gave the prime minister a much tougher time than he did in the TVA debate, where he seemed to reserve his best attacks for Scheer.

In a direct question to Trudeau, the NDP leader asked him why he kept “letting down” the people who voted for him by duplicating the failed policies of former PM Stephen Harper on climate change and health care.

Singh carried his line of questioning about disappointing people into the SNC-Lavalin scandal and Trudeau’s lack of courage to stand up to Quebec’s controversial Bill-C-21. That bill makes it illegal to wear religious symbols in a provincial government workplace.

Again, Trudeau bobbed and weaved just beyond Singh’s jabs, turning his exchange into a lesson in Size Matters. The PM certainly had the biggest platitudes. Singh’s questions went largely unanswered.

Trudeau’s reticence to be pinned down on Bill C-21 is hardly surprising. Party Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet was there on the podium with him to remind the audience that 70 per cent of Quebecers support Bill C-21. Trudeau avoided the trap of solidly committing to a court challenge of the controversial legislation, mostly because it might imperil his big lead over his opponents in Quebec.

With absolutely nothing to lose because his focus is provincial rather than national, Blanchet mocked Trudeau’s handling of the China file. Criticizing the Liberals for allowing the arrest of Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou, the Bloc Québécois leader said that you don’t use force when you have “tiny biceps.”

Green party leader Elizabeth May, fresh from firing a Green candidate in Ontario for anti-abortion comments made online, took Trudeau to task on her signature policy — the war on climate change. She described Liberal climate change policy as a plan designed “to fail.”

Once again, the prime minister employed the same rope-a-dope tactic with May that he used with the others. Instead of getting into the particulars of his plan, Trudeau claimed that experts on how to fight climate change say that plans have to be “ambitious and do-able.” Without directly attacking May, the PM clearly implied that although May’s plan might be ambitious, it was not achievable.

Not all the punches were directed at the PM. The leader of the People’s Party was everyone’s piñata as he tried to do the Donald Trump on subjects like immigration, foreign aid, and the United Nations. Maxime Bernier repeated his call for cutting immigration and drew fire from just about everyone.

(As wacky as he looks today, this same man lost the Conservative leadership race of 2017 by less than one per cent of the vote on the 13th round of the balloting.)

Trudeau shot back that Bernier’s role in the debate was “to say publicly” what Scheer says privately.

Both May and Singh denounced Bernier, with the NDP leader putting it this way: “People can see why I didn’t think you should share a platform... Your ideas are hurtful to Canadians.”

May castigated Scheer for his and former leader Harper’s disrespect for Indigenous people. She said that she was “appalled” that the Conservatives did not “consult” First Nations or treat them on a “nation-to-nation” basis while imposing their policies.

The beneficiary of the intra-leader sniping was the prime minister, who knew that every minute they spent arguing with each other was a minute he didn’t have to bob and weave.

Going into the English language debate, pollsters were painting a familiar picture of the political landscape — a country disengaged, confused, and most importantly undecided.

According to the latest data from pollster Nik Nanos for CTV News and the Globe and Mail, no candidate has a clear advantage, and one in eight Canadians are still pondering where to put their vote. The national numbers showed the Liberals at 34, the Conservatives at 33, the New Democrats at 15, and the Greens at 10 per cent.

Nothing that happened in the English debate changed that.

With the French debate looming, it will be the last chance for Canadians to see all of the leaders on the same stage. Election Day is just two weeks away on Oct. 21.  [Tyee]

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