From left to right: Annamie Paul/Jagmeet Singh/Justin Trudeau/Yves Francois-Blanchet/Erin O'Toole/Facebook

The first major televised event involving all federal party leaders happened on Sunday evening, August 29, on the CBC’s French network.

It was a series of half-hour interviews — in French, of course — with each of the five party leaders. It gave viewers some insight into how the leaders react when they’re in the hot seat being grilled by three seasoned journalists.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was forceful, with none of the verbal awkwardness he sometimes displays in English.

The Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole was über-programmed, repeating his talking points even when they had nothing to do with the questions posed to him. His awkward French didn’t help.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet was his usual self, always working hard to cover his innate aggressivity with a cloak of amiability.

Green leader Annamie Paul was evasive and almost incoherent at times, most especially when dealing with the issue of mandatory vaccinations. She’s against — but tried to hide her opposition in a cloud of verbiage.

The biggest surprise of the evening was probably the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh. His party has one seat in Quebec and is only slightly outperforming the NDP’s 2019 election results in the polls, and his turban continues to be barrier for many xenophobic Quebec voters.

Yet, Singh was the most affable and relaxed of all the leaders, speaking comfortable, if not perfect, French, and dealing with most questions directly and at least with the appearance of candour.

The three interviewers were Patrice Roy, a senior political reporter and host, Anne-Marie Dussault, a host on le Réseau de l’Information (Radio-Canada’s all-news network), and Céline Galipeau, host of Le Téléjournal (the nightly evening newscast).

Mandatory vaccinations a wedge issue

The evening started with Liberal leader Trudeau on the defence, defending his decision to trigger this early election.

Trudeau argued while most folks do not like having this election while the pandemic rages on, we all have to take our medicine nonetheless. His justification for the early vote on this occasion was no more convincing than when he started the whole exercise three weeks ago.

The Liberal leader did better on such contentious issues as mandatory vaccinations (he is pro-vaccine), health-care spending (which he’s open to increasing), and the need for the federal government to run an ongoing fiscal deficit to support a social and economic pandemic recovery.

Afghanistan was a tougher topic for Trudeau. He outright denied the Canadian response to the crisis had been slow and ineffectual.

The interviewers pointed out there are least two thousand people in Afghanistan who worked with the Canadian contingent there who have not been evacuated. Without providing any detail, Trudeau boasted his government would in fact provide refuge to those people and thousands more Afghans.

Climate change turned out to be another hot topic for Trudeau. The interviewers recognized that his government has put a price on carbon, but challenged Trudeau on the fact that Canada is the only G-7 country whose emissions have gone up since 2015 — the year Trudeau’s Liberals were elected.

Trudeau tried to hang that sorry record around the neck of his do-nothing predecessor, Conservative Stephen Harper. He was unapologetic about his government’s lacklustre climate target to reduce greenhouse gases to only 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, while other countries — including the U.S. — have more ambitious targets.

The Liberal leader also skated around the issue of subsidies to oil and gas companies — in the form of exploration credits, for instance. Those subsidies are on their way out, Trudeau said, but in the process of eliminating them we have to balance jobs and economic considerations with the environment.

Beyond the above issues, Trudeau had to parry questions on Indigenous rights, firearms controls, and the Huawei affair. He was not always perfectly clear and factual, but tried to at least deal with the issues at hand.

By contrast, his Conservative counterpart presented a painful spectacle of evasion and empty, memorized rhetoric.

Anyone who is tempted to believe Erin O’Toole’s recent conversion to something resembling progressive Red Toryism should watch this interview. Whatever his three interlocuters asked him, O’Toole virtually ignored the question and hauled out his mantra about the Conservative plan for an economic relaunch. That’s the central feature of the platform the party released at the outset of the campaign.

The Conservative leader was especially slippery on questions dealing with abortion and climate change. While O’Toole might be pro-choice and believe global warming is real, a good number of his party members — including many caucus members and candidates — do not agree on either issue.

The interviewers pointed to the 40 or so anti-abortion current Conservative MPs and asked O’Toole if he would appoint any as minister of health. He ignored that question and simply repeated that he, the leader, is pro-choice.

When asked about the majority vote at the most recent Conservative convention against recognizing climate change as a genuine phenomenon, O’Toole blandly intoned that global warming is a problem we must deal with.

The Radio-Canada journalists specifically pointed to Eastern Ontario MP and current candidate Cheryl Gallant’s false claim that the government is planning some sort of “climate lockdown.” In response, the Conservative leader resorted to platitudes. He said he was a uniter not a divider, but neither named nor openly condemned Gallant.

O’Toole did try to curry favour with Quebec voters by declaring himself, as Conservatives often do, to be a firm supporter of provincial autonomy. The Radio-Canada journalists wanted something more specific, however. They wanted to know if the Conservatives would assent to Quebec’s (and other provinces’) demand that the federal government cough up an additional $28 billion for health care, with no conditions and no questions asked.

O’Toole has guaranteed predictable federal funding for health, increasing at six per cent per year. But he ducked the $28-billion question. We’ll have to negotiate details with the provinces, he said.

On climate change, the Conservative leader could boast that he and his party have a plan — a change from the last campaign in 2019. But it is a plan that does not mean curtailing any pipeline activity — not even Northern Gateway, which a great many Indigenous groups on its route oppose.

On the subject of a possible Energy East pipeline through Quebec, which O’Toole and the Conservatives have supported in the past, the Conservative leader did his best to duck. He said his priorities were the two western pipelines now under construction.

On mandatory vaccination, O’Toole could not successfully obfuscate. He is opposed, but favours more rigorous testing as an alternative.

O’Toole was not alone on this matter. Two of the other leaders — the Greens’ Paul and the Bloc’s Blanchet — also oppose obligatory vaccination for federal civil servants and federally regulated workers. They also seem to oppose them for travellers on trains and airplanes.

Making minority governments work

The Bloc leader touted the value of minority governments, and claimed the Bloc had achieved “a lot for Quebec” since 2019. He did not provide many details, aside from mentioning support for the aluminum industry, and the fact that the Bloc voted for the most recent Liberal budget.

In reality, it is the New Democratic Party that notched the most successes in the last Parliament, and when his turn came, Singh was only too happy to point them out. The two most notable wins for the NDP were managing to double the CERB and a win a massive increase in the COVID wage subsidy.

More important for the NDP leader was his ability to successfully exercise his personal charm on at least some of his interlocutors. Anne-Marie Dussault seemed particularly taken with Singh, and asked her questions with a smile and conspiratorial twinkle in her eye.

Roy was tougher. He tried to push the New Democrat, saying the NDP was, in effect, nothing more than the left wing of the Liberal party.

Singh did not mind that question. It gave him the chance to push his message that the Liberals always promise more than they deliver. Were it not for the NDP, he suggested, a Liberal government would be far more small-c conservative.

Roy also raised the fact that the NDP is, notionally, a centralizing party. In fact, Quebec Premier François Legault says so.

In that vein, Roy asked a bit of a red herring question.

He wanted to know if Singh supported the federal government’s right to spend money in provincial fields of jurisdiction. The question is misguided because the federal government’s right to so-spend has been long recognized and most federal governments, of all stripes, have spent in such provincial fields as worker training, culture, and health.

Before he raises such non-sequitur issues again, the Radio-Canada journalist owes it to his viewers to do a bit more research.

The interviewers also pressed Singh on what has become an Ottawa insiders’ hobby horse: Would Singh ever be willing to prop up a Conservative minority government? Without uttering a categoric “no, never” Singh pointed out that he saw very little to support in what O’Toole’s party proposes.

The NDP leader’s strongest moment came on a question about potable water for First Nations communities.

Singh acknowledged that despite some modest progress on that sorry situation, the Liberal government has failed in its 2015 promise to assure all First Nations had water they could drink.

The reason for this failure, Singh offered, is less a matter of resources and technical barriers than one of political will.

When government resources had to be mobilized almost overnight to confront the economic ravages of the pandemic, the Trudeau folks found a way, Singh pointed out. The Canadian government simply must find the will to do the same for Indigenous communities who lack water and other basic infrastructure.

A flurry of key debates to come

This first parallel look at all the party leaders provided some helpful insights.

O’Toole’s facade of progressivism starts to crumble when he is confronted. Perhaps the most troubling of O’Toole’s core policies — and one he does not attempt to disguise — is his plan to rip up the childcare agreements the current government signed with most provinces. That should especially worry Quebecers, whose government has been spending billions on universal child care for many years. A federal contribution would be a welcome boost to that province’s bottom line.

The Bloc’s Blanchet is nothing more than a provocateur and a trouble-fête. His party’s main contribution is to make a majority government — and even a workable governing partnership or coalition — difficult to achieve.

Annamie Paul has become an almost negligible factor in this election, in Quebec as in the rest of Canada. She has a muddy position on vaccines, does not know where she stands on the Middle East, cannot get along with significant elements in her own party, and has not found candidates for many ridings. The fact that Paul is campaigning only in her own Toronto Centre riding tells the whole story.

For his part, the NDP leader has likeability on his side. Whether that might mean more votes for his party in Quebec is an open question.

Sadly, it is possible for some to like Singh and still think there is something vaguely suspicious about his choice of dress.

This Thursday evening the first of two French debates we will have during this campaign will take place on the private TVA network. Next week, there will be debates in both French and English, organized by the official debate commission. Oddly, there is only one debate planned in English.

The Radio-Canada two hour program devoted to relatively in-depth interviews with each of the leaders, in sequence, worked quite well.

Perhaps some English broadcaster will pick up the idea.

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

Image: Annamie Paul/Jagmeet Singh/Justin Trudeau/Yves Francois-Blanchet/Erin O’Toole/Facebook

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...