Image: Screenshot/Justin Trudeau/Twitter

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau came into his own in the French language debate on Thursday evening. He defended his record, citing such tangible accomplishments as the significant reduction in child poverty, while laying out at least a few strong reasons for voters to re-elect him.

Even on one of the most dubious parts of his time as prime minister, the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau gamely defended himself.

He unapologetically argued for his government’s deferred prosecution legislation, which would allow companies to escape prosecution for criminal activity. That was the legislation which triggered the SNC-Lavalin affair. Trudeau argued that it was necessary to allow for deferred prosecution of corporate crime in order to protect innocent workers and shareholders. As well, he pointed out, such agreements exist in other countries, such as the U.S. and U.K.

It was not an easy position to defend, especially when other leaders — from the far-right Peoples Party’s Maxime Bernier, to the Greens’ Elizabeth May, to Jagmeet Singh, who has reinvented the NDP as a left populist party — all made the far simpler case that everyone, no matter how rich or powerful, should be equal before the law. 

Trudeau did not back down, however, and sounded, in French, less tentative than he often does, in English, on SNC-Lavalin. Perhaps that was because he knew the Bloc Québécois leader, Yves-François Blanchet, would, in essence, agree with him. As well, the Liberal leader knows Quebec voters are far more favourable to the Montreal-based company, warts and all, than voters in the rest of the country.

Taking the fight to Ford and Kenney

Trudeau was especially strong when he pointed out that his government must pursue its environmental and social justice agendas (to the extent they have any) in the face of obdurate resistance from a cabal of Conservative premiers — the Kenneys, Fords, 

At one point, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was making his usual (and, in general, valid) point that Trudeau is not as progressive as he pretends to be when he handed Trudeau a golden opportunity.

Singh had pointed to the fact that the Liberal leader has done nothing to stop the pending closure of the only private abortion clinic in New Brunswick. But Trudeau turned that around and cited the abortion clinic story as yet another example of how he has to fight every day against right-wingers in the provinces — in this case the New Brunswick Conservatives.

As well, Trudeau was not loath to don his own version of the left populist cloak on a few occasions. For instance, he lambasted Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford for cozying up to their oil and gas industry pals. 

Canadian Liberals, unlike their friends in the U.S. Democratic party, very rarely engage in that sort of trash talk about major corporate interests. They leave it to the NDP. 

The Liberal party has, in fact, long considered itself to be the natural ally of big finance and big business. That’s why Trudeau named a major corporate figure, Bill Morneau, as finance minister. And why, for a number of years, the government’s chief backroom economic counsellor was London-based Dominic Barton, managing director of the giant global consulting firm McKinsey. (Barton is now Canada’s ambassador to China.)

Corporate-connected supporters of the Liberal party must have squirmed to hear their leader sounding like a grassroots socialist, denouncing the power and influence of big business, even if only for a brief moment.  And it was, indeed, more than a bit incongruous to hear Trudeau lament the outsized influence of big oil and gas in one breath only to tout the benefits of pipelines in the next.

Over-all, the fact that anti-environmentalist, borderline climate-change-denying Conservatives govern so many provinces right now is Trudeau’s best argument to progressive voters to vote for him. For many Canadians, the prospect of the malleable, feckless Conservative Andrew Scheer in the federal seat of power, with Kenney and Ford pulling his strings, is profoundly frightening.

A left populist in both French and English

For his part, Jagmeet Singh got good marks, again, for his affability, humour and clear, uncomplicated message. If you don’t know, by now, that the NDP is for you, whoever you are, and not the rich and powerful, you haven’t been paying any attention. 

Singh is empathetic, natural, even eloquent at times, and resolutely “on message” in political professionals’ parlance, almost to a fault. Some of us wish Singh would get more into the weeds of policy detail, at least on occasion.

On trade agreements, for instance, the NDP leader said he would be in favour of such deals if they favoured workers and not big business. That is not the case with the re-negotiated NAFTA Trudeau signed, he said. But he didn’t explain himself. What would Singh, if he were prime minister, have looked for in the new NAFTA on workers’ rights that is not in the actual deal? 

There are good, tangible arguments Singh could have made on trade and workers’ rights. But he didn’t. Maybe the strict time limits militated against a leader arguing in a more nuanced way, but Elizabeth May, and Trudeau and even, in his off-the-wall-extreme-libertarian way, Maxime Bernier sometimes did so. 

Singh still has time to get more policy specific, and go beyond his well-prepared talking points. The NDP has just released its final costed program. Singh could use that as an opportunity to be more tangible and detailed in his speeches and interviews. 

Scheer used the word liar while telling big lies himself

Analysts say Andrew Scheer did better in the official French debate than in the earlier one on TVA. That is a pretty low bar. 

The Conservative leader sounded vaguely unhinged when he repeatedly called Trudeau a liar. That seems to be the Conservative game plan — personal attacks and insults. It is an entirely disingenuous strategy for Scheer, given that he has not been forthright about his citizenship (he hid the fact that he is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen for years) or his professional activities prior to politics. 

Scheer was the only leader to attack the Bloc’s Blanchet for being a separatist. The latter says he is running not to promote the separation of Quebec, but, rather, to support nationalist, but not separatist, Quebec Premier François Legault’s agenda. 

Scheer wants to portray the Conservatives as the natural allies of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The problem is that Legault is not an Anglo-Canadian-style, small-c conservative. He might be in favour of streamlining government, but he is not for slashing social spending. And on climate change, Legault has made a great effort to align himself with the Quebec consensus, which favours carbon pricing and other measures Scheer and his provincial allies eschew.

If the unlikely day were ever to come when Scheer were to seek Blanchet’s support for a Conservative minority government, his characterization of the Bloc as a separatist party might come back to haunt him. 

Outside of Quebec, political alliances with separatists are not popular. 

In 2008, then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion found that out when he tried to overturn the Harper government and form a coalition with the NDP which would have required the active support of the Bloc. It did not quite work out. Harper remained prime minister and went on to win a majority in the subsequent election. 

Scheer nearly got away with telling the biggest lie of the evening when he repeated his fraudulent promise that he could cut overseas development assistance by 25 per cent, or $1.5 billion, and not touch any assistance to the poorest countries. The Conservative leader claims he would only have cut aid for more affluent, middle-income countries. 

In fact, cutting the money to those relatively rich countries would yield only $22 million, leaving about $1.49 billion to cut from aid to the neediest cases .

Radio-Canada’s Alex Castonguay, who had posed the question on his proposed aid cuts to Scheer, pushed Scheer on his false figures, but, again, the format did not permit a deeper exploration of the issue. 

Sadly, supporting aid to less developed countries is not a political winner in Canada. Of all the leaders, only the Greens’ Elizabeth May has, to this point, made a determined effort to advocate for overseas international assistance. 

There is a bit more than a week left before voting day, although the advance polls are already open. Maybe, in the time that remains, the two other supposedly progressive leaders, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Singh, will find the courage and voice to educate Canadians on the vital importance — to our own self-interest, if nothing else — of assisting the billions around the globe who still live in poverty. 

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

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...