Put on defensive in leaders' debate, Trudeau tries to caution against cynicism

Six years after Trudeau said that “better is always possible,” he is still trying to carry a message of ambition and progress. But now he’s also carrying the inevitable baggage of these years in office.

Liberal leader attacked on all sides in fractious confrontation

Left to right, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language leaders' debate Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Halfway through a messy two-hour primetime spectacle, Justin Trudeau hit upon a bit of wisdom.

"One of the enemies of progressive politics," he said, "is cynicism."

Unfortunately for the Liberal leader, the other candidates on stage at the Museum of History on Thursday — Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green leader Annamie Paul to his right, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative leader Erin O'Toole to his left — spent much of the night insisting there were very good reasons to feel cynical about him.

Six years after Trudeau, then the youthful leader of the third-place Liberals, looked into the camera at the conclusion of his first leaders' debate and said that "better is always possible," Trudeau is still trying to carry a message of ambition and progress. But now he's also carrying the inevitable baggage of these years in office.

And in the waning days of an election campaign that seems to be balanced precariously on a razor's edge, Trudeau was everyone else's preferred point of attack.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul take part in the federal election English-language leaders' debate. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The parade toward the Liberal leader began with Annamie Paul, who used a question about sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces to say she didn't think Trudeau was a "real feminist," while mentioning the names of Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the two former Liberal cabinet ministers who quit amid the SNC-Lavalin affair. ("You'll perhaps understand that I won't take lessons on caucus management from you," Trudeau responded, a reference to former Green MP Jenica Atwin's decision to leave the Greens for the Liberals.)

Erin O'Toole, who himself would name drop Wilson-Raybould twice during the evening, next suggested families in Western Canada "feel left out after six years of Mr. Trudeau." Jagmeet Singh then said Trudeau "doesn't act like" there's a climate crisis.

O'Toole blamed Trudeau for causing an "inflation crisis" and Singh criticized the Liberal leader for not stopping the housing crisis. Blanchet claimed the Trudeau government's distribution of income support to seniors was unduly discriminatory.

WATCH | Trudeau and Paul spar over feminism and leadership:

Liberal and Green leaders have heated exchange over feminism and leadership

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
Justin Trudeau and Annamie Paul had the first exchange in the English leaders' debate, hosted by Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute.

But however much O'Toole, Singh and Paul seemed to believe that Trudeau shouldn't be prime minister, they also all agreed that he shouldn't have called the election when he did — particularly as it coincided with the fall of Afghanistan.

The format of the debate was stifling and harried. Like the French-language debate the night before, it was conducted at the pace of a lightning round. Trudeau at times seemed to be hurrying to get as many words in as possible before he was cut off. He clearly wanted to confront O'Toole on a number of fronts — about vaccination mandates and child care and gun control — but he ended up having to slip in those points wherever he could.

Around him were four leaders playing different parts. Blanchet was the irritated sovereignist. Paul positioned herself as the outsider who wanted to change the "culture" of politics. Singh led with emotion: frustrated, saddened, passionate, aspirational. O'Toole appeared to want to be the serious and practical one.

Together, you could imagine them pulling at different aspects of Trudeau's record and brand.

Trudeau attacked for missed emission targets

In the second half hour there was agreement between O'Toole and Singh that the Trudeau government had missed its targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, though it's unclear what targets they were referring to.

When Trudeau came to office in November 2015, Canada had two outstanding international commitments — one to achieve a 17-per-cent-reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord, the other to achieve a 30-per-cent reduction by 2030 under the Paris Accord. 

WATCH | Trudeau and O'Toole on climate change:

Trudeau, O'Toole debate climate change

2 years ago
Duration 2:12
During the English leaders' debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole respond to the question about how one in four Canadians do not believe climate change is caused by human activity.

At the time, emissions levels in Canada were flat and projected to continue increasing and it likely would have taken a rather dramatic series of actions to meet that 2020 target. It's fair to say the target was missed, but if the Conservatives or New Democrats have plans for how that target might've been reached, they could say so.

Trudeau pointed out that the 2030 target is still nine years away and said his government is on track to exceed that goal — in fact, it has recently increased its commitment and is now aiming to reduce emissions by at least 40 per cent. The Liberal leader then tried to apply pressure to Singh, noting that climate policy experts have criticized the NDP platform and praised the Liberal plan. Singh countered that annual national emissions levels haven't fallen under Trudeau (the latest data is for 2019).

Failed expectations

Again, if there is a serious proposal for how the federal government could have immediately reduced emissions with actions taken after November 2015, that should probably be put forward. 

But the claim that Trudeau has not lived up to his promises or his words would soon come up again — this time on reconciliation.

In the third half hour, O'Toole and Singh were similarly agreed that Trudeau had not lived up to expectations.

"Mr. Trudeau promises things and doesn't deliver," O'Toole said.

"Mr. Trudeau may care. I think he cares. But the reality is that he's often done a lot of things for show and he hasn't backed them up with real action," said Singh, who took particular issue with the fact that the Liberal government has not walked away from legal disputes with some Indigenous groups.

It was during this discussion that Trudeau made his observation about the danger of cynicism — which he described as "discounting the hard work that millions of people have been involved in over the past years."

Missed target on water advisories

Yes, he said, there was more to do — there was always more to do — but 109 drinking water advisories had been lifted, thousands of Indigenous kids were going to class in new or refurbished schools, more agreements were being signed and more money was being invested.

Of course, it was also Trudeau who voluntarily offered the commitment in 2015 that his government would lift all water advisories in Indigenous communities within five years.

WATCH : Singh criticizes Trudeau's record on Indigenous issues:

Singh says Trudeau has not acted on Indigenous calls to justice

2 years ago
Duration 1:14
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accuses Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of saying one thing but doing another when it comes to compensation for Indigenous kids.

That turned out to be either an underestimation of the extent of the problem or of the ability of the machinery of government to move that fast. And so now it's another thing Trudeau has to answer for.

Trudeau has always spoken in terms of ideals and has rarely shown much hesitation about committing to pursue action or address problems. In theory, that could lead to more change than would be achieved by a more cautious, incrementalist approach to politics. But it can also invite cynicism.

The slogan of 2021 — "forward, for everyone" — is an extension of the statement in 2015 that better is always possible. But when Trudeau tried to finish this debate with that message of continuing to move forward, the moderator cut him off.

After six years in office, it can be harder to get a hearing. But Trudeau has 10 more days to repair any damage he suffered in this debate, say whatever words he couldn't get out and finish making the argument for a little more time in office.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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