From top left, clockwise: Jagmeet Singh/Erin O'Toole/Yves Francois-Blanchet/Justin Trudeau/Facebook

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and Liberal Justin Trudeau both took direct hits during this election campaign’s first debate on Thursday evening, September 2. It was the first of two debates in French — this one on the private TVA television network. (There will only be one English debate taking place on Sept. 9.)

Trudeau took fire from the other leaders and from the debate moderator — veteran broadcaster Pierre Bruneau — over the early election call.

O’Toole did not succeed in obfuscating his way out of multiple attacks: on his party’s plan to scrap $6 billion of federal aid to Quebec for its child care program; on two-tier health care; and, on Conservative plans to weaken firearms legislation and regulation

On the last point, O’Toole blatantly lied. When Trudeau said the Conservative platform says it will scrap law C-71 — which adds restrictions on the sale, transfer and transport of weapons and enhances background checks — and the May 2020 Order in Council — which bans assault weapons — O’Toole falsely said “That’s not true.”

In fact, it is right there, as Trudeau accurately pointed out, in black and white, on page 90 of the Conservative platform.

The gun community fiercely opposes the assault weapon ban, and the Conservatives support them. O’Toole tried to hide that fact from the largely Quebec-based audience. Since the Polytechnique Montréal massacre of 1989, there has been consensus in favour of effective gun control in Quebec.

For Trudeau, the simple fact of calling an election two years early continues to haunt him in ways neither he nor Liberal party strategists ever expected.

Prior to the election call, the Liberals were leading comfortably in most opinion polls. Almost immediately after Trudeau pulled the plug on this Parliament, Liberal numbers started to fall. It quickly became apparent that the main reason was widespread irritation over what appeared to many as a capricious, or, worse, self-serving and unnecessary election.

Conventional wisdom among political professionals has it that anger over the date of an election is inevitably temporary and will not, ultimately, have an impact on peoples’ vote.

This time, it seems the pros were wrong, as evidenced by the pasting Trudeau took on the issue during the TVA debate.

The Bloc Québécois’ Yves-François Blanchet attacked the Liberal leader from the outset. Trudeau claimed Parliament was not working, Blanchet said, but in fact it was working quite well. The government had no trouble getting its legislation, including the massive 2021 budget — which the Bloc supported — through the House. There was no need, Blanchet said, for an election during the fourth wave of the pandemic.

For good measure, the Bloc leader pointed to Trudeau’s campaign style, involving lots of hugs and hand-slaps, which he characterized as heedless and unsafe.

Trudeau tried gamely to fight back, but his quiver was empty of arrows. He even had to admit that Parliament had indeed been working well, if only for “some (unspecified) things.”

When they had their chance, both the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh and O’Toole took bashes at Trudeau for the timing of the election call.

Singh emphasized how this pandemic election poses dangers for campaign workers, while putting a freeze on government action to continue providing help to those who need it most at this time.

Nobody bites on idea of a coalition government

Moderator Bruneau seemed particularly aggrieved by the early election, and tried to propose a way to prevent another precipitous election call should this election not award a majority to any party.

He pushed the idea of a coalition government, which would be able to keep power for a full four-year mandate.

Trudeau dismissed that idea out of hand, saying we had no tradition of coalitions in Canada.

Other leaders were more circumspect, emphasizing they would work to make Parliament work, whatever the outcome of the vote.

Blanchet categorically said his party would not take part in a coalition. It would, as is its wont, continue to support measures that were good for Quebec and oppose those that weren’t.

The moderator, as have other journalists, pushed the NDP’s Singh on potential collaboration with the Tories. But, as he has done previously, Singh said he was running to be prime minister, full stop.

Oddly, Trudeau was the only leader to say he did not think another Parliament in which no party had a majority would last. He speculated that in such a case there would be another election within 18 months. It was a petulant statement, and it might come back to bite Trudeau on the backside.

Trudeau was on firmer ground on vaccine mandates, which he supports for federal workers and federally regulated industries, but which both O’Toole and Blanchet (and Green leader Annamie Paul, who was not invited to this debate ) oppose.

The Liberal leader continues trying to make obligatory vaccination a wedge issue, as such Liberal sages as former senior Chrétien adviser Peter Donolo have advised. So far, it does not seem to getting much traction.

O’Toole’s mask of progressivism keeps slipping

On policy matters, however, it was O’Toole who had the hardest time.

Both Trudeau and Blanchet hammered the Conservative leader on child care.

O’Toole’s party plans to scrap the Liberals’ recently-passed child care program — a cost-shared plan with the provinces designed to provide universal $10-per-day child care. Seven provinces have signed agreements with the federal government to implement the plan. In Quebec’s case, the federal government will contribute $6 billion per year to its already existing child care system.

O’Toole’s alternative on child care is a boost in cash payments to parents, under the existing Canada Child Benefit. The Conservative leader said he respects and admires Quebec’s success in child care, and promised to “negotiate” something — we are not sure what — with Quebec Premier François Legault. He tried to substitute deference to Quebec’s constitutional jurisdiction for tangible financial commitment.

Indeed, O’Toole quite pointedly did not say a Conservative government would respect the child care accord the federal government signed with Quebec and six other provinces.

The Conservative was not too strong on two-tier health care either.

O’Toole has, in the past, supported expanding private provision of health services, within the framework of the current public system. He would not explain what he means by that during this debate however.

All the Conservative would say is that a Liberal advertisement quoting him on the issue had been deemed unfair by Twitter — a U.S corporation. When the Conservatives brought a complaint about that ad to the Canadian Elections Commissioner’s office, it did not see any problem.

Singh relied too much on rehearsed rhetoric

The NDP’s Singh handled himself well, although his French seemed to leave him from time to time. At one point he could not summon to mind the word for “to demonstrate” in French (“manifester”) and got a bit tongue-tied when he tried to talk about desperate Afghans clinging to airplanes at the Kabul airport.

Toward the end of the evening, Singh and Blanchet got into a heated exchange about racism.

In the last Parliament, Singh had proposed a motion condemning systemic racism in the RCMP, which all MPs supported save one: Bloc House Leader Alain Therrien. In general, the Bloc, like Quebec Premier Legault, is averse to the very idea of systemic racism.

When Thérrien voted against Singh’s motion he did so with a dismissive and condescending gesture, which seemed to refer to Singh’s appearance. The New Democrat characterized that gesture as racist, and now the Bloc wants an apology.

Blanchet thought he could score points for a Quebec audience by demanding the apology from Singh. The New Democrat did not back down, defended himself articulately and ably, and won that skirmish.

On the whole, Singh could have been more specific on his party’s policies, such as those on climate change, justice for Indigenous peoples, and why the NDP — unlike the Bloc, Conservatives and Liberals — opposes a tunnel linking Quebec City to Lévis on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence.

On this occasion, the NDPer tended to rely too much on pat, rhetorical answers. He still has a chance to up his game for the two debates to come

But the main battle of the evening was between Trudeau and O’Toole.

In the next two debates we can expect Trudeau — with some help from the other leaders — to keep trying to unmask O’Toole’s so-far successful efforts to portray himself as a safe, reasonable, non-threatening, almost-progressive Conservative.

This coming week will be the most important of the campaign so far — a campaign that has not gone, in any sense, the way the Liberals had anticipated.

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

Image: From top left, clockwise: Jagmeet Singh/Erin O’Toole/Yves Francois-Blanchet/Justin Trudeau/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...