TORONTO — A simmering battle between federal Greens and New Democrats took centre stage at the first leaders’ debate of the election campaign Thursday, where some of the sharpest jabs were exchanged between Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh.
Though Greens and the NDP share similar priorities — from fighting climate change to bringing in national pharmacare — polls suggest they are currently in a dogfight for third place and, potentially, the balance of power in a future minority Parliament.
At the event in Toronto, hosted by Maclean’s and Citytv, the NDP leader threw down the gauntlet, stating that while his party agrees with May’s on a lot of issues, they differ on four key points.
“When it comes down to it, we have a solid position, unlike the Greens, on a woman’s right to choose. We have a solid position when it comes down to national unity. We have a belief that we can’t leave workers behind,” Singh said.
“And we strongly believe that we should not be putting Mr. [Andrew] Scheer in the prime minister’s seat, unlike Ms. May and the Green Party who believe that’s the right choice.”
“Those were absurd statements,” May shot back, incredulous.
“I’m not going to go down the little rabbit hole that Mr. Singh just created. People can check,” she added a little later. “None of what he just said was true.”
Singh’s interjection highlighted some recent controversies that have complicated the first days of the Green’s campaign — no doubt intended to keep progressive voters from gravitating towards May.
Earlier this week, the Green party leader raised eyebrows by telling CBC’s “Power & Politics” that she could not whip votes of Green MPs on abortion legislation.
A day later, MP Pierre Nantel, who was dumped as an NDP candidate just before joining the Greens, told a radio station he thinks Quebec should “separate as fast as possible” from Canada.
Singh’s dig about May potentially “putting” the Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in the PM’s seat is related to the fact that the NDP has already ruled out propping up a Tory minority government. Singh has said he took that position because of Scheer’s earlier opposition to gay marriage.
May told HuffPost Canada earlier this year that Green support in a minority Parliament would be contingent on seeing a serious climate plan from parties, something she does not presently see on offer from either Liberals or the Tories.
She reiterated that point earlier in the debate, saying Greens aren’t interested in “chasing power.”
“The bottom line is whatever Parliament is formed at the end of the next election must be committed to holding [global warming] to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which means massive transformational changes that start now,” she said.
And while rival parties aren’t there yet, May said, “I think they might change their minds in negotiation.”
Singh also seized an opportunity after moderator Paul Wells asked May to clarify her suggestion that SNC-Lavalin, if found guilty of corruption charges, be forced to help provide clean drinking water on First Nations reserves.
May said the idea of a corporation doing “community service” was “something creative,” but not official Green Party policy — something she also told HuffPost Canada earlier this summer.
Singh dismissed it as a “ludicrous idea” for any corporation to provide public infrastructure as a form of punishment.
Watch: May envisions Canada running off 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
May also poured cold water on the NDP’s platform commitment of dental care for all. She said Greens are “troubled” by the cost of such a program, which she said the parliamentary budget watchdog pegged at $30 billion. The focus should instead be on providing dental care for low-income Canadians, May said.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, May said Singh launched his attacks on her during a section of the debate dealing with climate change.
“What definitely distinguishes the NDP from the Greens is when asked about climate change, the answer is abortion and national unity,” she said. “Let me be very clear, probably for the millionth time, I personally will never retreat one inch from a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. Neither will the Green Party, neither will any of our members of Parliament.”
May said her party will also “always fight for national unity,” saying she has no respect for politicians who would do otherwise.