Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shake hands during the Maclean’s/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Thursday, September 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Absent Trudeau is main target in leaders’ first election debate

Vying for third place, both NDP and Green leaders paint Liberals and Tories as establishment parties

An absent Justin Trudeau was the primary target for opposition leaders Thursday during the first debate of the federal election campaign but his rivals managed to bloody one another as well.

Trudeau gave the Maclean’s/Citytv debate a pass, preferring to spend his time at a rally in Edmonton. Even before they took to the debate stage in Toronto, his rivals accused Trudeau of cowardice, afraid to defend what they described as his abysmal record.

But some of the sharpest exchanges during the debate saw opposition leaders attacking each other, particularly the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh and the Greens’ Elizabeth May, who, polls suggest, are locked in a potentially existential battle for third place.

Both portrayed Trudeau’s Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives as establishment parties that cater to the wealthy and vied to present themselves as the real progressive alternative.

Scheer, for the most part, kept his sights trained on Trudeau, lambasting him for running up massive deficits despite promising in 2015 that he would return the federal budget to balance after a few years of modest red ink. He warned that a re-elected Liberal government will raise taxes to pay off the accumulating debt and promised a Conservative government would “live within its means” and return to budgetary balance within five years.

“By getting back to balanced budgets, we can lower taxes and put more money in your pockets, so that you can get ahead,” Scheer said. “That is what this election is all about: who do you trust to make life more affordable and help you get ahead?”

But both Singh and May countered that Scheer would cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for the rest. And, on foreign policy, they accused him of being a clone of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I realize if anyone wants to know where you stand, just figure out what Trump wants, “ said May. ”You will do what Trump wants. He might as well be the ventriloquist and you’re Charlie McCarthy.”

“That’s just false,” countered Scheer.

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Charlie McCarthy was the doll in U.S. entertainer Edgar Bergen’s act, which was big from the 1930s to the ’50s.

Scheer dodged several questions from the debate moderator, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, about whether he still supports Brexit now that the United Kingdom’s move to leave the European Union is mired in chaos. But Singh took the opportunity to tie Scheer’s pro-Brexit sentiment with a broader anti-immigration sentiment, accusing Scheer of using ”defamatory language” about refugee claimants arriving in Canada through unofficial border crossings and of having ”some association” with anti-immigrant Yellow Vesters.

“That’s just not true. You’re just making things up,” Scheer said, insisting that Conservatives want a fair, orderly and compassionate immigration system.

Both Singh and May went after Scheer over Conservative senators’ blocking a bill that would have ensured Canadian laws conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It stalled in the Senate and died with the election call.

Scheer defended his senators, arguing that Conservatives were concerned the bill would have required free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous communities for any resource project, effectively giving a veto to a single community that could hold all the others “hostage.” May and Singh chided him for what they called disrespectful and inappropriate language.

Despite their jabs at one another, the three opposition leaders rarely lost a chance to pummel their primary target: Trudeau. Debate on Indigenous issues veered into the SNC-Lavalin affair, with Scheer taking the opportunity to remind viewers that Trudeau is the only prime minister to have been found to have broken ethics law.

“And now we find out that the RCMP is looking into this case with a view to possible obstruction of justice charges and he is obstructing their attempts to get the truth,” Scheer said, referring to reports this week that the RCMP probe has been stymied by the refusal to waive cabinet confidentiality on matters surrounding former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s assertion that she was improperly pressured to stop the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

KEEP READING: Federal leaders back with political families for Day 3 of campaign

Earlier in the day, Trudeau stuck by his decision to participate only in two official debates next month and a third in French hosted by TVA. And he suggested he’d prefer to be on the campaign trail in B.C. and Alberta anyway.

“The opportunity to get out across this country, speak with Canadians, listen to them, and talk about how we are going to build a better future for everyone and how we’re going to choose a better future for everyone is at the core of what this election is all about for me,” he said in Victoria, where he announced an expansion of a program to help first-time homebuyers.

That night, he was revving up party faithful at a rally in Edmonton, reminding Albertans of his government helping them to weather the plunge in world oil prices, including buying the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

The Canadian Press

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