Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Want to become a member? Check out the benefits here.
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
Get the latest summer forecast and weather knowledge from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
What you need to know about COVID-19: August 11, 2020
Why on earth did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refuse to attend the first leaders’ debate?
Trudeau is widely credited for a sterling performance in 2015 in debates that may well have won him the election that fall. He was more than willing to go into the debating ring then and — by all accounts — mix it up with the best of them.
“He gave a sense of poise, policy ambition and cocksure readiness to spar with any of the other leaders,” wrote Maclean’s Paul Wells back in 2015 of Trudeau’s performance. “It was Trudeau who cut the most impressive figure.”
On Thursday, Wells was the moderator of the debate that Trudeau — perhaps not so impressively — decided to duck.
Could it have been that the normally loquacious prime minister was afraid of finding himself tongue-tied — or worse — repetitive when the SNC-Lavalin scandal was raised, as it almost certainly would have been?
The prime minister has nothing to gain by letting his opponents batter him senseless over the affair. He knew full well that in Toronto on Thursday evening they would dredge up all those inconvenient truths that have emerged over the past few months: the unethical pressure on an attorney general; the firing of the same AG and another minister for standing up for the rule of law, an ethics report so damning that the prime minister can’t acknowledge it in full, certainly not to the extent that it warrants an apology. And now reports that the RCMP are investigating possible obstruction of justice charges.
Not surprisingly, the opposition leaders were dismayed at Trudeau’s no-show.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Trudeau was hiding from the SNC-Lavalin affair and he was no doubt right.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau needed to defend his record. “His record is pretty abysmal but that doesn’t mean he should give up on the debate,” he said.
For his part, the prime minister said he would sooner speak to Canadians.
“The opportunity to get out across this country, speak with Canadians, listen to them, and talk about how we are going to build a better future for everyone and how we’re going to choose a better future for everyone is at the core of what this election is all about for me,” he said in Victoria.
“I’m going to keep doing that.”
But from the get-go Trudeau has been tied in knots when questioned about SNC.
His first performance in February when the allegations first surfaced was an absolute embarrassment.
To a question whether pressure had been “applied” to the attorney general he used the old strawman argument — refute something that had never been alleged. What’s more, he did it three times in almost exactly the same language when pressed on the matter.
He had never “directed” the attorney general. No, but had he applied pressure, he was asked again. He had never “directed” the attorney general, he replied again — and again.
Trudeau obviously had his official speaking points and was not to be knocked off them — not matter how foolish he looked.
On Wednesday, he used the same playbook with his taciturn response to allegations that the RCMP was investigating allegations of obstruction of justice.
“My job as prime minister is to be there to stand up for and defend Canadians’ jobs,” he said, totally avoiding the question.
His response pretty much mirrored his answer as to why he would not apologize after the ethics commissioner found “flagrant attempts to influence” former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
It seems now to be the standard — and oft repeated — response to any question about the SNC-Lavalin ethical breaches or RCMP obstruction of justice inquiries.
But it was hardly likely to get him through a grueling, two-hour debate facing an opposition that would have been delighted to pepper him with question after question on those issues.
Perhaps rehearsals for the official debates he will finally attend have not been going well.
In 2015, Wells wrote that Trudeau’s opponents wanted to increase the number of debates “to multiply his opportunities to screw up.”
In 2019, Trudeau wants to reduce the number of debates to limit his opportunities to do just that.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019