POLITICS

French Debate: Trudeau Could Face Tough Fight Over Unity Stance

10/02/2015 08:26 EDT | Updated 10/02/2016 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is hoping to focus tonight's debate on the economy and his deficit-friendly spending plan.

The French-language debate is hosted by TVA, in a province where the Liberal plan to run up deficits in an attempt to stimulate the economy is likely to go over better than the party's position on Canadian unity and other matters, according to one analyst.

"He's a federalist. He has some of his father's view on Quebec's place in Confederation...he says that 50 per cent plus one (vote) is not enough to break up the country, so nationalists and separatists are not going to like Trudeau very much," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.

Trudeau touted his focus on the economy Thursday, when he promised money for transit projects to boost the economy and create jobs. He specified two local projects and said they would help commuters and the environment as well.

When asked by reporters why polls suggest he is struggling to gain traction in Quebec, Trudeau kept pivoting to his economic message and called the economy the "primary issue" of the campaign.

It's clear Trudeau believes the economy is a wedge issue in his battle with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to show who is the better alternative to the Conservatives' Stephen Harper. Trudeau has repeatedly pointed to Mulcair's promise to balance the budget and called it a copy of Harper's plan and a "mistake".

But the economy has often been overshadowed by other issues in the election — whether women should be allowed to be veiled during citizenship ceremonies, whether convicted terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship, and more.

And on unity, Mulcair's position that a simple majority vote is enough to begin Quebec secession talks is viewed as an advantage with most Quebecers.

"I don't think the Liberals are going into this with any expectation that they are going to expand their number of seats. I think they are hoping to hold on to the seats that they have and in that strategy their battleground is Ontario," said Bruce Hicks, a visiting fellow at the Glendon School of Public Affairs at York University. He also taught political science at Concordia University for six years.

Trudeau may also have to fight to be heard in the debate, which Hicks expects to be primarily a battle between Mulcair and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

Another challenge for Trudeau is that the bar has been raised for him. With less experience than his counterparts, expectations were very low for Trudeau going into the campaign's previous debates. But after "more than holding his own" in the foreign affairs debate earlier this week, according to Thomas, Trudeau has to improve.

"I think the next stage is for him to sound and look prime ministerial," Thomas said.

"And that's a big challenge. He's up against tough, experienced politicians."

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