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Leaders battle over economy while battering an absent Trudeau at first debate

Last Updated Sep 17, 2019 at 10:32 am PDT

Justin Trudeau was glaringly absent when the first National Leaders’ debate hosted by Citytv and Maclean’s got underway on Thursday night, but within minutes the Liberal Leader was the centre of attention.

Trudeau may have declined his invitation to the debate at the CityNews building near Yonge and Dundas Square in downtown Toronto, but it quickly became clear that he wouldn’t evade stinging criticism from his political rivals.

The state of the economy was the first topic up for discussion and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer didn’t waste any time pinning the country’s fiscal woes on Trudeau.

Ignoring Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s somewhat tepid defence of a costly guaranteed livable income plan, Scheer quickly attacked his absent, and more significant rival.

“Justin Trudeau promised that the budget would balance itself this year, instead we see massive deficits as far as the eyes can see, years into the future,” Scheer sneered.

“That puts a huge strain on our social services like health care and education.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh piled onto the Trudeau bashing, while making sure he didn’t give Scheer a pass.

“Governments in Ottawa whether they have been Conservative, or particularly with Mr. Trudeau … have always made decisions that seem to make life easier for the richest and hardest for everyone else and we’ve got to change that.”

“He (Scheer) would certainly cut taxes, he would cut taxes for the wealthy and he would cut services for families and that’s exactly what Conservatives do.”

Trudeau wasn’t the only non-present politician to wade into the discussion.

Singh made sure to align Scheer with Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford, whose early tenure has been marked by controversy and dismal poll numbers.

“We’ve seen it here in Ontario, Mr. Ford promised to cut taxes, he did — he cut taxes for the wealthiest, and then he cut services for families, autism funding, education funding, all the thing that families rely on,” Singh said.

Scheer denied it while craftily swaying the conservation back to Trudeau.

“I have made a firm commitment that under a Conservative government I will ensure that funding for health care and social services continue to increase.”

“We can see that Justin Trudeau is trying to do Canada what Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals did to Ontario when they ran massive deficits that put strains on our public services and led to higher taxes.”

May suggested finding money by “increasing taxes on the wealthy (and) eliminating loopholes that overwhelmingly only benefit the top one per cent.”

“We don’t tax Google or Facebook,” she noted. “They take billions out of this economy.”

Stench of SNC-Lavalin

Justin Trudeau’s shadow, and biggest scandal, hovered over the debate.

Scheer accused Trudeau, who was found guilty of violating the Conflict of Interest Act, of trying to obstruct an RCMP probe into the SNC Lavalin affair.

“He is the only Prime Minister that has ever been convicted of breaking the law and he lied about it, and now we find out that the RCMP is looking into this case with a view to possible obstruction of justice charges and he is obstructing their attempts to get the truth.”

“I want to use this opportunity to call on Justin Trudeau to do the right thing and waive full cabinet privilege and cabinet confidence to allow people to testify to the RCMP so we can get to the bottom of this issue.”

Singh quickly interjected, insinuating that both the Conservatives and Liberals are vulnerable to corporate influence.

“Whether we have Mr. Trudeau in government, a Liberal government, or Mr. Scheer in government, at the end of the day both these parties continue to make it easier for the rich to get ahead. That’s their priority, so it wouldn’t have been much different. The PMOs office, if it was Mr. Scheer’s office, would have got the call directly from SNC, all the wealthiest corporations know to donate to either Conservatives or they donate to the Liberals because they know it’s either of those parties that have their back.”

Scheer quickly fired back, alleging that Singh met with SNC Lavalin on May 10, 2018.

“That’s not true and you know it, Singh barked.

May then provided a rare moment of levity, quipping: “I think I’m so incorruptible, SNC Lavalin never asked to meet me.”

“He’s scared”: Scheer mocks Trudeau

Last week Trudeau said he would only participate in debates organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission.

Both Scheer and Singh derided Trudeau upon their arrival at the debate.

“I’m exciting that we are going to have an opportunity to talk about our priorities and our plans,” Scheer said. “I just wish that Justin Trudeau had taken the time to show up, it’s obvious that he’s afraid of his record but we’ll carry on without him.”

Singh’s rebuke was even more searing.

“We’ve got to hold Mr. Trudeau to account,” he said after stepping off his campaign bus. “He’s let down people a lot in the four years, and he’s not here to defend his track record. His track record is pretty abysmal when it comes to things like climate crisis, Indigenous rights, when it comes to fighting for health care, the housing crisis, we want to make sure we hold him to account.”

May was the only one to avoid the topic of Trudeau upon her arrival. Instead she put the focus on her party’s climate action plan, dubbed Mission Possible.

“I’m just looking forward to having a chance to put forward our ideas, our positive vision for the country,” May stressed “Our approach, Mission Possible, is the most ambitious plan of any party and the only one consistent with the science.”

“We want Canadians brought together like a family because that’s what we are.”

Watch the full two-hour debate below.

Look back at some key moments below: