BY IAN PATTISON
Well, that certainly didn’t go as planned. One can only imagine the consternation in the war rooms of the major political parties as their election launch plans this week were knocked off kilter by unforeseen events.
For the governing Liberals it was the SNC-Lavalin affair that just won’t die. On the eve of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Rideau Hall to start the race to Oct. 21, The Globe and Mail reported that the RCMP has been unable to interview all the witnesses that it wants to investigate potential obstruction in the government’s efforts to intervene on behalf of the engineering company facing old corruption charges.
Trudeau argued then that his office was seeking to protect thousands of jobs at SNC, a position that seemed to satisfy most Canadians. Even when the ethics commissioner ruled Trudeau had violated the conflict of interest act, Trudeau said he’d do it again and the Liberals’ popularity did not take a lasting hit.
This time, though, the PM is looking shaky. As Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer presses his rival to waive cabinet confidentiality rules to allow the Mounties to talk to former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and others, Trudeau argues he already approved unprecedented confidentiality waivers in the first go-round. But with the RCMP now involved, Trudeau’s refusal to budge looks more and more like there’s something to hide.
In the long run it might not matter because the Mounties have suspended their operation until voting is finished. But if Trudeau’s opponents can keep this pot boiling, it could raise enough doubts to alter what is currently a close race for the lead.
Sheer faces two controversies. The Liberals dredged up an old speech in which the Tory leader said he was opposed to gay marriage while this week the Libs accused Scheer of offering tax breaks to parents who take their children out of public schools in favour of private schooling. That Alberta’s Conservative premier Jason Kenney has just ordered the word “public” removed from some public school names doesn’t help Scheer.
The battle for third place is a different story as Jagmeet Singh struggles to maintain credibility while NDP fundraising sags and the party races to find candidates in about 100 ridings even as the election campaign begins. NDP polling is not encouraging and Elizabeth May’s Green party is within striking distance.
May herself has been knocked off message twice this week. On Monday she said she won’t “whip votes” on abortion issues – Green party rules forbid the leader from telling members how to vote -- forcing the party to issue a statement that all candidates must back the party’s position supporting women’s rights to abortions.
Later in the week the same rule surfaced in connection with Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for some public sector employees. May opposes the ban but won’t – can’t -- tell her candidates how to vote or what to say, only that the party is opposed.
The matter came to light concerning former NDP candidate Pierre Nantel, who recently defected to the Green Party. (Defections of 14 New Brunswick New Democrats to the Greens last week blew up when May accused Singh of strong-arming half of them back into the fold.) In 2017, Nantel suggested that then-NDP leadership contender Singh’s turban made him “not compatible” with Quebec. And herein lies a ticking time bomb for all federal parties.
Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious symbols is hugely popular in Quebec – a province that any party must win in order to win a federal election. However, the bill is widely condemned in the rest of Canada. That leaves two leaders to gain advantage.
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier says the other leaders should mind their own business. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has vowed to protect the province from attempts by the federal government to interfere with the legislation. Depending on how this plays out, Bernier and Blanchet could rob enough votes from other parties to alter the overall election result.
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Justin Trudeau’s absence from the first leaders’ debate this week probably didn’t hurt him nearly as much as his opponents would have liked. There is something visceral about looking your opponent in the eye as you take him or her down. Merely talking about Trudeau instead of to him wasn’t very effective. Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May will have their chances at the only official English-language debate Oct. 7 but for now they must content themselves with how they did on Thursday.
Thank goodness Singh had a strong closing statement because for the rest of the night he was notable for two things: interrupting to the point of annoyance and overdoing the mantra about Ottawa rewarding the rich and ignoring everyone else. To be sure there is a huge issue around income inequality in Canada but it would be difficult to count the number of federal programs in place to help people cope.
It was notable that both Scheer and May had reason on several occasions to tell Singh that what he’d just said was simply untrue.
Scheer was roundly criticized when he said that when it comes consulting with First Nations on energy matters, there has to come a time when majority rules. When Singh and May generalized about the importance of negotiations, Scheer asked them what they would do if one First Nation was thwarting the will of all of its neighbours. He didn’t get an answer. Ontario is facing the same issue on the Ring of Fire and successive Liberal and Conservative governments have said, after years of failed talks, that they will deal with willing partners.
May showed once again Thursday why she is head and shoulders above the others – and that would include Trudeau – on matters of fact. She was so completely conversant on the entire range of topics up for debate that the other two were at times left to try and change the subject.
It was on climate change where May was most compelling. She alone was willing to tell the stark truths about time running out while offering a bold plan to get Canada off fossil fuels and stimulate the economy with development of clean energy alternatives. If that sounds overly ambitious or simply outrageous, the alternative is, according to every credible climate scientist on Earth, unthinkable. We have not heard the last of this topic from all four party leaders. Bernier doesn’t count because he doesn’t believe that climate change matters. That position is, quite literally, dead wrong.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.