Trudeau faces pressure in final debate before Canadian election

Polls show Trudeau’s Liberal Party could be threatened by Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party on election day.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has faced criticism over decision to call a snap election. [Justin Tang/Reuters]

Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced off with opponents in the final debate before the September 20 snap election, painting his Conservative Party rival as unready to lead as he faced increased pressure over foreign policy and the timing of his decision to call an election.

The nationally televised primetime debate was the final opportunity to take aim at his biggest challenger, Erin O’Toole of the Conservative Party.

It came after a French-language debate on Wednesday, with both forums including Trudeau, O’Toole, the leader of the left-of-centre New Democratic Party Jagmeet Singh, the head of the Green Party Annamie Paul, and the head of the Bloc Quebecois, which supports Quebec’s independence, Yves-Francois Blanchet.

Recent polls show O’Toole’s party has a chance of winning the election and ending six years of Liberal Party rule. However, 10 days before the election, no party appears poised to achieve an absolute majority of 170 seats in Parliament.

Trudeau weathered criticism for his timing in calling the election, with O’Toole on Thursday accusing him of putting his “own political interests ahead of the well being of thousands of people”.

Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, also accused Trudeau of calling the election for a “selfish reason, to obtain more power”.

Trudeau has repeatedly defended the position, saying during Wednesday’s debate in French that “Canadians need to have a say how we get out of this” while hailing his government’s pandemic response, which has seen 77 percent of Canadians aged above 12 years receive vaccinations.

New Democratic Party Jagmeet Singh, left, and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole debate on Thursday [Justin Tang/Reuters]

On Thursday, Trudeau said O’Toole’s opposition to vaccine mandates, which the Liberal Party supports, and refusal of some members of the Conservative Party to get vaccinated, underscored a lack of leadership.

“The problem with Mr O’Toole and his principles is he says all the right-sounding things and he’s working on reassuring everyone that he’s right there as a strong leader, but he can’t convince his candidates to get vaccinated,” said Trudeau.

O’Toole, who has sought to portray himself as a serious leader who would clean up what he has called a corrupt, incompetent and spendthrift Trudeau government, shot back: “I am driving the bus to make sure we get this country back on track.”

Ten days until election

Trudeau – the more seasoned campaigner who loves a dog fight – at times appeared agitated and spoke over O’Toole and three other party leaders on the stage, before the moderator cut him off.

He sought to highlight splinters in the Conservative Party’s approach to climate change, leading O’Toole to acknowledge that Conservatives needed to win back public trust.

“We haven’t met the expectations of Canadians on climate change,” O’Toole said.

Turning to foreign policy, O’Toole criticised Trudeau for calling an election last month on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“When Afghanistan was falling there were 1,200 Canadians and hundreds more translators and others waiting for help from Canada,” O’Toole said.

Protesters gesture towards Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his election campaign tour stop in Brantford, Ontario, Canada [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

“Mr Trudeau should not have called this election, you should have gotten the job done in Afghanistan,” he said.

O’Toole also said Trudeau had failed to resolve the standoff with China over two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – who have been imprisoned in the country since 2018 in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest on a US warrant of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

“You let the Michaels down,” O’Toole said.

Trudeau, the son of the late former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, became the second-youngest prime minister in Canadian history when he was first elected with a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015 after almost a decade of Conservative Party government.

But there is some fatigue among voters after six years of Trudeau, with some saying he has failed to achieve what had been high expectations.

He won re-election in 2019, but formed a minority government, as is common in Canada, after failing to win a majority of the seats.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies