MONTREAL – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared for his first debate of the 2019 election on Wednesday, clashing with his main rival, Andrew Scheer of the Conservative Party, just three weeks ahead of the knife-edge vote.
They sparred in French over heady topics such as laicism, abortion, doctor-assisted dying, decriminalizing narcotics and gay marriage, as well as vote movers climate change and the economy.
Both were looking to sway votes in the key battleground of Quebec, where one-quarter of the 338 seats in Parliament are up for grabs.
Going toe to toe with Scheer as well as fielding attacks in open floor exchanges from New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois, Trudeau was animated in defending his first-term record.
Scheer, who is untested and less comfortable speaking in French than English, needed to show Canadians that he is ready to be prime minister.
But at times, he seemed like a wallflower.
Scheer dodged questions on his personal views on abortion and was criticized for expecting other nations to take the bulk of climate actions while promising to roll back a Liberal carbon tax.
“The Conservatives are struggling with the fact that their values do not align with the progressivism of Canadians,” Trudeau said.
The incumbent prime minister blasted provincial Tory leaders for going to court against a federal carbon tax, saying, “Andrew Scheer is not going to stand up to them” while touting a Liberal pledge to plant 2 billion trees over the next four years.
However, he faced criticism from Singh for having nationalized an oil pipeline.
Scheer also shot back, raising Trudeau’s ethics lapses, including his meddling in the criminal prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
Scheer has said he would, if elected, launch a judicial inquiry into Trudeau’s unapologetic arm-twisting of his attorney general to settle the case in order to save up to 9,000 jobs.
The scandal, revealed earlier this year, tarnished Trudeau’s golden-boy image, while plunging his Liberals into a dead heat with the Tories in polls ahead of the Oct. 21 election.
Photos that emerged last month of Trudeau wearing blackface makeup to parties decades ago also sullied his personal popularity but didn’t get a mention in the debate.
For his part, Scheer has struggled to charm Canadians during the campaign while fending off attacks over his opposition to same-sex marriage in a 2005 speech.
He got one of the few laughs in the debate when he took Trudeau to task for having two campaign aircraft, “one for Mr. Trudeau and the media, and one for his costumes and canoes.”
The latter was a reference to Trudeau paddling up to a podium for a campaign announcement.
Trudeau clarified later that the Liberals bought carbon credits to offset his campaign jetsetting.
In such a close election, McGill University politics professor Daniel Beland said, the debates “could affect the race in a big way.”
Two more debates — one in French and one in English — are scheduled for Oct. 7 and 10.
Whereas Trudeau shined in 2015 debates that led to the Liberals’ landslide victory and seems at ease at town hall meetings where he fields questions from Canadians, he now has a target on his back and the most to lose, Beland said.
Ahead of the debate, Trudeau worked out in a boxing ring — bolstering the view that he is against the ropes fighting for his political survival and needs to land a knock-out blow in these debates.
The Liberals are currently leading in Quebec, but the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which had been presumed dead after a dismal showing in the 2015 election that resulted in only 10 seats for it in Parliament — two short of official party status — has seen an unexpected surge.
Quebec separatism — after two failed referendums in 1980 and 1995 on splitting away from the rest of Canada — is a no-go nowadays.
But the Bloc has tapped into lingering Quebec nationalism to revive its fortunes, arguing that it is best positioned to defend the province’s interests within the federation.
Blanchet, a former provincial minister and television analyst, has also closely aligned his party’s policies with those of the hugely popular Quebec government of Francois Legault. That includes restrictions on religious symbols and dress, and more say on immigration policy.
But its revival could split votes on the left, notably in rural Quebec, where the Liberals must make gains, risking handing electoral victory to the Conservatives.