Federal leaders debate environment, China in first leaders debate

In Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s absence, three federal party leaders took part in the first leaders debate in the 2019 election

What happened: Three federal party leaders debated issues related to the economy, Indigenous rights, energy and the environment, and foreign policy in the Maclean’s/Citytv National Leaders Debate on Thursday (September 12) evening.

Why it matters: This was the first leaders debate in the 2019 election, and an opportunity for the leaders of the Conservative, New Democratic and Green parties to make their mark and discuss their platforms in Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s absence.

Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer committed to balancing Canada’s budget in five years.

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh promised universal medication coverage within a year.

Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May said she would raise the federal corporate tax rate to 21% to help “massively expand” social services.

Three federal party leaders took part in the first leaders debate of Canada’s 2019 federal election on Thursday evening. The economy was the first topic on the docket in the Maclean’s/Citytv National Leaders Debate, but it took a back seat.

All three leaders took shots at Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau’s record, be it with Indigenous peoples, with the national budget or on SNC-Lavalin. Singh and May challenged Scheer repeatedly on what his party would stand for, while Scheer found himself up against former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s track record on Indigenous issues.

Trudeau was in an NDP riding in Edmonton, kicking off his campaign in Alberta after officially launching his campaign in Vancouver earlier this week.

Scheer, Singh and May debated the economy, Indigenous issues, energy and the environment, and foreign policy.

The Conservative Party leader promised to balance the national budget while maintaining record-level spending committed to by the current Liberal government, and while increasing spending on social services and health care. To do that, he said he would cut inefficient spending, and repatriated $250 million given by Canada to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

“That is our track record and that is our commitment going into the future,” he said.

May challenged the feasibility of Scheer’s plan. She has also committed to balancing the federal budget in half a decade by increasing taxes, increasing bank transfer charges and closing tax loopholes. She said she would do this while working toward guaranteed liveable income, the elimination of tuition and universal pharmacare.

“Our plans are very realistic,” she said. “We can afford to do it. We can’t afford not to.”

Singh said he would close tax havens and tax loopholes to fund universal medication coverage for all by the end of 2020. He said he would back that commitment with $10 billion and work with the provinces to help realize it.

“We’ll start with pharmacare for all,” he said.

Singh dodged a question by the moderator on whether he would support LNG Canada’s project because the BC NDP government supports it. He said he would immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies.

“We know that we’ve got to move to an economy that is zero emission,” he said.

Scheer called his party’s 50-point plan on the environment the most comprehensive plan of any opposition party. He called out the Liberal government on implementing a national carbon tax while allowing large project proponents – such as LNG Canada – exemptions.

“We have with Justin Trudeau a failed approach,” he said. He reiterated a promise to repeal the tax if elected.

He also said he would commit to some of the elements of failed Bill C-262 – which would have ensured Canadian laws are in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – but rejected the concept of free, prior and informed consent.

“That means that we would have tremendous uncertainty,” he said. “If there are Indigenous communities who want a project to proceed, they would be vetoed.”

Both Singh and May rejected his argument.

“He’s talking as if he doesn’t understand the reality,” said the New Democratic Party leader. “If you don’t have communities buying in, projects won’t go ahead.”

All three leaders spoke to the need to address drinking water advisories on Indigenous reserves.

In the global arena, Singh and Scheer agreed that the Canadian government needs to do more about attacks on Canadian products, such as U.S.-imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. Singh said more needs to be done to address steel dumping, while Scheer said it was “very disappointing” that Trudeau signed a trade agreement with the U.S. while tariffs remained in effect.

Singh said he would promote “fair trade” over “free trade.”

On China, May said the priority ought to be people, and not trade.

“Our number one concern must be the safety of Canadians,” she said in reference to two Canadians currently held in China. Scheer agreed that their safety is a priority. He said he does not currently support a free trade deal with China. He also said Canada has specific ways in which it can stand up for itself internationally with respect to the world's second largest economy, though he only offered pulling funding from the AIIB as an example.

Final pitches

May urged Canadians to consider voting Green, emphasizing that the party would stimulate the economy in a way not seen since the Second World War, all while keeping its commitments to a massive social spending platform.

"Who do you trust to make life more affordable?" asked Scheer. He attacked Trudeau's tax increases, "massive deficits" and ethics, and reiterated his commitment to repeal the Liberals' carbon tax. 

Singh ended the debate with a commitment to tackle unaffordable housing, universal pharmacare and environmental challenges, as long as government has the courage to tackle speculators, money launderers, Big Pharma and big polluters.