The big debates are coming and they could change the story of the campaign

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

As they prepare for the next round of debates -- the big ones, starting Monday night with the English language debate, broadcast on all the main networks -- all of the federal party leaders are fighting their own demons.

Andrew Scheer will have to explain why he never previously shared the fact that he has dual Canada-U.S. citizenship. Who knew that would become an election issue?

The Conservative leader will also have to recover from what all Quebec commentators say was his weak and defensive performance in the recent French language TVA debate. 

Scheer had considerable trouble reconciling his personal anti-choice position on abortion with his commitment not to re-open the issue, if elected. He was not too strong on climate change either. 

Scheer should be taking flack for being the first major party leader ever to promise a huge cut in overseas development assistance, based on flagrantly false statistics about the current apportionment of that money -- but he isn't. The other parties, it seems, do not think there is political mileage in defending the idea of spending taxpayers' money in foreign countries.

That's a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse.

Trudeau shot himself in the foot with the First Nations child welfare appeal

As for Justin Trudeau, just when he seemed to have battled the SNC-Lavalin and brown-and-blackface scandals to a standstill, and was having some success in framing the election as a choice between his pragmatic version of progressive politics versus the heedless slash and burn policies of the Conservatives, he inflicted a wound on himself. His government decided to challenge the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's decision on First Nations child welfare in federal court.

As a result of the tireless efforts of Cindy Blackstock and her First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the tribunal had ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 for each of the Indigenous children taken by the welfare system from their homes and communities since 2006.

David Lametti, the federal attorney general who replaced Jody Wilson-Raybould, filed the appeal on behalf of the government. Trudeau and his new minister of Indigenous services, his close personal friend Seamus O'Regan, explained this mid-campaign lurch by saying the government wants "clarity" before it does anything about the pain and suffering of First Nations and their children.

This decision to appeal gives us an idea of what Jody Wilson-Raybould was up against when she was in cabinet. 

The former attorney general's view was that the federal government should stop treating First Nations as adversaries. When Indigenous communities sought judicial or quasi-judicial redress for historic injustices, Wilson-Raybould encouraged her department's lawyers and officials to negotiate in a spirit of reconciliation, rather than fight every inch of the way. 

But the onetime Liberal cabinet minister ran into entrenched bureaucratic and political resistance. 

Inside the bureaucracy -- and the prime minister's political office -- there was a strong view that the federal government should not show the slightest degree of weakness, could not afford to give in to each and every Indigenous demand.

In truth, reconciliation has been, in many respects, more of a slogan for the Trudeau government than a guiding principle.

On the First Nations child welfare issue, Trudeau finds himself in 100 per cent alignment with his Conservative adversary. Before, during and after the leaders' debate, we can expect both the NDP and Green leaders to vigorously point that out.

May's Greens do have a separatist candidate

As for the Green leader herself, Elizabeth May is growing frustrated at NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's attacks on her. 

The NDP leader frequently points to May's willingness to prop up a Conservative minority government, however far-fetched that idea seems. He also needles her for having a few candidates who are, he claims, wobbly on abortion, and for tolerating one candidate, former NDPer Pierre Nantel, who has openly declared himself to be a sovereigntist (translation: separatist). 

May says none of that is true. At best, she says, the charges are based on a distorted interpretation of her statements. 

On the prospect of the Greens propping up a Conservative government, May has a point. There is no chance Andrew Scheer could ever meet her demands on climate change. 

When it comes to the supposedly anti-abortion candidates, well, that seems to be something of a gray area. But on Green candidate Pierre Nantel declaring himself to be a separatist, the NDP has Elizabeth May dead to rights. Nantel did just that, unequivocally, and has not backed down.

Singh will have to make his ambitious plans sound practical

For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh goes into the next round of debates with a breeze, if not a hard wind, in his sails. 

He did well in the first two leaders' debates, the earlier Maclean's debate and the more recent French language TVA debate. On the latter, Quebec pundits and analysts gave Singh high marks for being genuine and natural, and for connecting with progressive values shared by many Quebecers -- on the environment, on income redistribution and on a woman's right to choose. 

National Post columnist John Ivison does not have much sympathy for the 2019 NDP's left populist positions, which pit the people against the rich and powerful. But Ivision begrudgingly admits Singh and the NDP might be connecting with voters

For Ivison, there are echoes here of the 1972 campaign, when then-NDP leader David Lewis campaigned against corporate welfare bums and won what was then a record number of seats for his party, 31. Pierre Trudeau's Liberals, who, like Justin Trudeau's Liberals in 2015, had been elected with a big majority in 1968, were reduced to a minority, with just two seats more than the Progressive Conservatives

Ivison points to a recent Angus Reid Institute poll that gives Singh the highest favourability rating among all leaders. That does not translate, yet, into support for the party, but there's still lots of campaign to go. 

Having said that, it is important to recognize that the NDP's talk of massively expanding public health coverage to include not only prescription drugs, but dental and other forms of health care, of moving toward a national child care program, and of putting measures to combat climate change on a fast track, strike many as appealing, but overly ambitious and unrealistic. 

Singh says he would pay for the NDP's promises by raising the corporate tax rate, increasing income taxes on the super-rich, going after offshore tax havens and closing loopholes such as the one governing stock options. 

But when the NDP leader talked about all this on CBC's The National, with supposedly undecided voters, many worried that higher taxes would scare away investment and jobs.

Sunny Rajwan of Abbotsford, British Columbia, told Singh: "The last time I checked we work in a capitalist economy … corporations aren't in it to play at charity …" 

This handpicked, straight-from-central-CBC-casting undecided voter said he worried that someday in the future, after high taxes will have chased investors and jobs away, the NDP will knock on his door and say "hey, we have to pay for all our promises" and ask him to pony up. 

Singh made a game effort to defend himself, pointing out that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has posited that for the rich there would be a big cost to picking up stakes and leaving Canada. Singh said his party has limited its proposed tax increase on the wealthy to one per cent, precisely because at that small rate it would be more expensive for wealthy individuals to leave than to stay.

Host Rosemary Barton then chimed in.  

She asked Singh if he realized it was corporations that created jobs, arguing that we in Canada cannot afford to raise our corporate tax rate given that Donald Trump has slashed the U.S. rate. 

Singh did his best to answer, although he might consider working on his talking points on this one. 

The NDP leader failed to explain, for instance, that Canada's single-payer health insurance system, even as currently constituted, gives this country a competitive advantage in attracting jobs. South of the border, companies have to pay for expensive private group health plans for their workers. 

If Canada were to significantly expand coverage of health services, in line with the NDP's proposal, that would only add to our competitive advantage. 

Employers would no longer have to finance a costly suite of extended health benefits for their workers. It would mean a considerable saving for businesses operating in Canada. 

Singh will also have to find some way of explaining that it is okay for him to have said he hopes Donald Trump is impeached. He will have to tell Canadians how, if he were to become prime minister, he would still be able to deal effectively with the U.S. president. 

And the NDP leader should consider how he would handle equally tough questions on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade agreement and on his position that Canada should break its agreement to sell military vehicles to Saudi Arabia. 

For all of the leaders, and for voters, the debates will be both a challenge and an opportunity. The leaders will have to defend themselves, their records and their past statements. But they will also have the opportunity to enunciate something resembling a vision for the country.

Voters will have a chance to see how well they do very soon. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter

 
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