OTTAWA — Five federal party leaders will face off in the first of two official election debates Wednesday evening in what may well be their best chance to sway voters before election day on Sept. 20.
With less than two weeks to go, millions of voters are expected to tune in for Wednesday’s two-hour French debate and Thursday’s English debate.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul will participate in both debates. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the criteria established by the independent leaders’ debate commission for participation.
Both debates, organized by consortiums of broadcasters, are being held at the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Parliament Hill.
As leaders prepared for Wednesday’s debate, the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP sought to fill the vacuum by staking positions and calling each other out.
During a virtual news conference, Liberal candidates Melanie Joly and Mark Holland accused O’Toole of cozying up with right-wing “fringe” elements and harbouring a secret agenda on gun control, abortion and mandatory vaccines.
O’Toole in recent weeks has faced questions after an apparent reversal on plans to repeal a Liberal ban on assault-style firearms and his refusal to require Conservative candidates be vaccinated. He has also said he is pro-choice after appealing to anti-abortion activists during his run for the Tory leadership last year.
“If Canadians listen carefully to the debate tonight and tomorrow night, they’re going to hear those code words, little nudges and winks, to let those fringe groups that helped him get elected as leader: ‘No, don’t worry, I’m really still with you,'” Holland said.
Asked whether the Liberals were focusing on so-called wedge issues because the polls put them close to the Tories in support, Joly said the point was to call attention to how O’Toole’s comments to voters are different than those he makes to Conservative members.
The Conservatives were scheduled to hold a technical briefing at 4 p.m. eastern time to release details about how much their election campaign is expected to cost. The party also announced on Wednesday morning a subsidy program to help the country’s tourism and hospitality sectors emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “Dine and Discover” program would offer a 50 per cent rebate for food and non-alcoholic drinks bought during in-person dining at restaurants between Monday and Wednesday for one month, “once it is safe to do so,” the party said in a news release. The program is expected to inject $1 billion into the two sectors, the party added.
Another program would provide a 15 per cent tax credit for vacation expenses — up to $1,000 per person — for travel within Canada in 2022. The Tories also promised to eliminate the “Liberal escalator tax on alcohol,” which is a federal tax on alcohol products that increases annually.
The debates come as opinion polls suggest the Liberals and Conservatives are stuck in a tight two-way race, with the NDP and Bloc poised to determine which of the two main parties emerges victorious.
Hours before the French-language debate, senior NDP officials expressed satisfaction about how the campaign has played out so far, during a background briefing on condition of anonymity. They said they planned to keep Singh in front of the cameras as much as possible in the final two weeks.
“You’ve seen a lot of Jagmeet, and you’re going to see a lot more of Jagmeet as we go forward,” one NDP official said.
Public and internal polling suggests a great deal of disappointment with Trudeau and the Liberals, the official added. The goal is to have Singh connect with as many Canadians as possible while contrasting himself with the Liberal leader.
The party is hoping the strategy, which also includes constant reminders about broken promises by the Liberals, will keep NDP supporters from switching their votes over fears of a Conservative government.
“In designing the campaign and the campaign plan, we always know this is where the Liberals will go,” the official said. “And I think what we have seen working is going to continue to work.”
New Democrats are hoping for seat gains in Vancouver, the Lower Mainland, B.C., north and southwestern Ontario, and Montreal.
Several NDP candidates held a news conference ahead of the debate to unveil their party’s plan for northern Ontario, during which they accused the Liberal government of having failed the region. NDP candidate Charlie Angus discussed the financial issues facing Laurentian University in Sudbury, despite education being a provincial issue. Laurentian has cancelled dozens of courses, laid off about 100 staff and filed for creditor protection.
The New Democrats also promised to strengthen FedNor, the federal agency responsible for supporting economic development in northern Ontario and criticized the Liberals for not doing enough to address transportation challenges in the region.
Last week’s TVA French debate, to which neither Paul nor Bernier was invited, appears to have done little to move the needle for any party.
In 2019, some 7.5 million Canadians tuned in to the English debate across all traditional and social media platforms while some three million tuned in to the official French debate. Surveys conducted by the debates commission afterward suggested that “the debates were central to the electoral process,” according to a commission report on the process.
“On balance, the debates played an important role in increasing engagement with the issues, leaders, and choices before voters.”
That said, the commission reported that its surveys found no measurable difference in intended turnout or change in vote intention between Canadians who watched the debates and those who didn’t.
Wednesday’s French debate begins at 8 p.m. ET.
Topics to be discussed are climate change, the cost of living and public finances, Indigenous Peoples and cultural identity, justice and foreign policy, and health care and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The English debate on Thursday starts at 9 p.m.
The topics for that debate are affordability, climate, COVID-19 recovery, leadership and accountability and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2021.
The Canadian Press