The House

Justin Trudeau 'looking forward' to taking on Harper, Mulcair in leaders debate

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says he's ready for the first leaders debate of the campaign season in a wide-ranging interview.

Liberal leader admits debate inexperience, but says he's 'excited' for Aug. 6 face-off

In an interview on CBC Radio's The House, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau discusses the upcoming debate, coalition with the NDP and the timing of the election. 5:29
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Justin Trudeau knows he's the rookie in the upcoming leaders' debate, but the Liberal leader is looking forward to facing off against experienced debaters Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair.

"I understand the challenges we're going into, but I'm also very excited about the opportunity to contrast our plan to the lack of plan of our opponents," Trudeau told Terry Milewski in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House.

With just days to go before the first debate of the official campaign season, Trudeau said a possible earlier-than-expected election call won't disrupt his debate prep. 

"The Prime Minister has the right to call the election when he wants," he said. "The fact of the matter is, he changed the rules."

Trudeau admitted the Conservatives' hefty war chest gives the Tories a financial edge in a campaign stretching a potential 11 weeks.

"He's going to have an advantage in terms of the spending, but I still believe that Canadians can't be bought by deeper pockets," Trudeau said.

Elections Canada data show that the Conservatives have raised slightly more than $69 million since 2012, while the Liberals have raised $41.8 million and the NDP nearly $28.2 million. 

The Conservatives also have more money in the coffers of their electoral district associations — $19 million compared to the Liberals' $8 million in net assets and the NDP's $4.4 million.

But Trudeau said when it comes to the campaign, it's not about out-spending opponents but connecting to what he sees as a "massive desire for change" by Canadians.

"Canadians are going to have a great choice to make between three very different visions for this country, three different styles of leadership," he said.

For now, those three distinct styles of leadership mean Trudeau is still ruling out a formal coalition with the NDP. 

"One of the things I'm not going to do is reduce, either implicitly or explicitly, options at the ballot box. I'm not going to try and figure out how we can win at all costs by making all sorts of arrangements," he said. "That's why I've said no to a formal coalition."

However, the Liberal Party remains "open to working with any parties after an election," he added. 

Economy biggest wedge preventing Liberal, NDP coalition

The main deterrence for Trudeau in joining an alliance with the NDP is what he said is a "fundamental disagreement" between the two parties on how to grow the economy.

"The NDP have completely misread the economy," he said. 

According to Trudeau, the Conservatives haven't done much better.

"We know now that the budget Mr. Oliver put forward a few months ago is total fiction," he said. "Their projections were completely off — Canada is doing far worse than they projected."

The evolving financial environment — the economy shrank by 0.2 per cent in May, the fifth consecutive monthly contraction — means all the parties have to change their plans, Trudeau said.

How might the Liberals adjust?

"We'll focus on the kinds of investments that lead to growth and help for the people who need it," Trudeau said. "Our plan is entirely focused on growth and fairness and the choices that we're going to make are focused on that."

Open to referendum on electoral reform

There is one thing Trudeau might be in agreement with the Conservatives on — a possible referendum on electoral reform. 

"Absolutely Canadians should have a way in how we pick our electoral reform," he said. "Let's open it up, let's bring in experts, let's bring in Canadians."

One of Trudeau's key policy planks in a 32-point plan is his promise to end the first-past-the-post voting system.

But he wouldn't say whether a Liberal government would hold a referendum on the subject.

"I'm not going to commit one way or another to the mechanisms around how to do it," he said. "I'm open to all different avenues."

'Western...troops on the ground cannot fix the conflicts'

Trudeau also doubled down on a previous statement he made in an interview on CBC's Power & Politics in June that he would end Canada's bombing mission in Iraq

"We know from years of mistakes, generations of mistakes, that Western or foreign troops on the ground cannot fix the conflicts," he said.

"We need to make sure that it's the local people taking back their communities, pushing back against these terrorists. They need to be trained."

"What I'm proposing is much more infantry-level training, that we're actually training the troops because the special forces can't train up an unqualified soldier the same way infantry troops can."

***Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly referred to Canada's bombing mission in Iran, instead of Iraq.