The First Election Debate: Pipelines and Pipe Dreams

Shelby Challis

On Thursday, August 6th, Canada’s political leaders took to the stage to debate over their competing economic and political visions for the country. The debate featured Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the Green Party’s Leader Elizabeth May. Hosted by Maclean’s magazine and moderated by their political editor Paul Wells, the debate focused on four broad topics: the economy, energy and the environment, democratic institutions and foreign policy and security. Given that this could potentially be the only English-language debate of the 2015 election campaign to include all four leaders, it was a debate worth paying attention to.

Starting off with the economy, Harper’s economic record was held to the fire, seeing as Canada has had five consecutive months of economic contraction, one month away from constituting a recession. All of the opposition leaders critiqued the Harper government’s program of tax cuts and balanced budget proposals and argued that instead of achieving the Conservative’s lauded goals, his leadership and policies have facilitated the growth of both the federal debt and eight years of deficits. Harper defended his administration’s record by positioning himself as a jobs creator; the tax cuts he oversaw, he argued, have helped to create 1.3 million jobs. Mulcair critiqued Harper’s defense by arguing that the quality of the jobs Harper claims to have created are what matters,  and those have  predominantly been precarious, low-paying, and part-time jobs.

The issue of rising income inequality was raised by the moderator; however none of the candidates seemed to be able to speak clearly about what their party would be willing to do to help the most financially vulnerable in our country. Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper all spoke to the importance of middle class income growth, with Trudeau and Mulcair stating that they would be willing to increase the tax burdens of major corporations and big businesses. However, few of their actual policy proposals were substantiated by facts or figures. All of the leaders engaged in the usual lip service politicians pay to their favored talking point:  the need to help the middle class. However, no discussion was had regarding the ever-growing segment of the population that is continuing to fall farther and farther below the poverty line. The candidates came up empty on their ability to speak to this vulnerable segment’s need, let alone speak to their proposals for alleviating their pain.

The debate then turned to energy and the environment, with risky pipeline schemes becoming a major point of contention. Harper defended his support for the Keystone XL Pipeline, Northern Gateway, and other similar energy projects by arguing that they will boost the economy and create value-added Canadian jobs. He went on to claim that these projects undergo a vigorous environmental assessment, to assuage any fears about their impact on the environment. The opposition leaders however, took issue with all of these claims. May argued that these pipeline projects will effectively export Canadian jobs, while both Trudeau and Mulcair questioned the validity of the environmental assessment process. The latter two leaders emphasized the lack of consultation with First Nations, whose concerns over their natural resources have continued to fall on the current administration’s deaf ears.

The leaders’ third topic centered on issues pertaining to democratic institutions, and Harper’s Fair Elections Act was scrutinized. Mulcair and Trudeau argued that this Act, which effectively increases voting requirements, has made it more difficult for entire classes of people (i.e. the homeless, students, seniors, and First Nations) to vote because they might not necessarily fulfill the new ID requirements. Trudeau went on to state that Harper is trying to stir up a misplaced fear of voter fraud rather than focus on the more pressing issue of improving voter turnout. Harper defended his legislation by arguing that the ID requirements are not onerous, and that there is special considerations given to certain classes of citizens. Trudeau accused Harper of engaging in the politics of fear and voter suppression by choosing to engage in what Trudeau argues is the non-issue of voter fraud. Harper defended his position by stating that the lack of evidence concerning this issue is a by-product of the lack of voter ID laws that this legislation would seek to counteract. It seems that the Harper administration is choosing to pass legislation first, and find evidence to support that legislation later.

The controversial anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, was contested in the debate’s last set of topics, which centered on foreign policy and security. Harper tried to temper fears over the legislation’s ability to encroach on the rights and freedoms of Canadians by emphasizing the imminent threat that ISIL and other terrorist organizations pose to the health and security of our country, and the real potential that those organizations have to orchestrate an attack here at home. May, however, argued that Bill C-51 fails to meet its stated objectives. Making the case for repealing of the Bill, May argued that rather than shore up our country’s security, it fails to confront the risk of radicalization, creates a secret police force with no parliamentary oversight, and effectively erodes the rights and freedoms of Canadians. These sentiments were echoed by Mulcair, who argued that if elected he would also seek to repeal. Trudeau was by no means unscathed following this exchange; both Harper and Mulcair criticized the leader for contradicting his own position on the Bill, stating that Trudeau has been both for and against the legislation at the same time. While his party initially supported the legislation in Parliament, they have since pledged to repeal controversial portions of it. It was also brought up that members of the Liberal party have cancelled their membership to protest against the ways in which their party has positioned themselves on the issue.

During her closing remarks, May made the most important point of the entire debate, and that was to highlight a number of topics that were not up for discussion in this leadership debate. Those topics she listed included social policy, expanding the Medicare system to include pharmaceuticals, wealth fairness, and student debt. May’s list could have also included the equally vital and pressing issues of mental health, chronic poverty, and affordable housing to name but a few others. May’s point should strike a chord in the electorate; we need to demand that our political leaders speak to the issues that fundamentally impact our daily lives. While this debate might be over, the demands for answers and accountability from our leaders have only just begun.


Shelby Challis is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and has since worked for the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. Her policy areas of interest include healthcare finance, labour relations and security management.

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