Ducking debates and SNC-Lavalin: Strategists weigh in on Trudeau campaign so far

WATCH ABOVE: Expect the unexpected in this election campaign

As widely predicted, the SNC-Lavalin affair has been a topic of contention as the federal election swings into gear.

Reporters peppered Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau with questions on the long-running scandal shortly after the writ was issued.

READ MORE: Scheer, Trudeau duel over report of feds blocking RCMP on SNC-Lavalin inquiry

It was not an ideal way to kick off a re-election campaign, says Liberal strategist Richard Mahoney.

“I think that the story got talked into something. It’s obviously not the way you want to start your campaign, having to answer those questions, but I think a lot of opposition politicians, Mr. Scheer included, tried to make it into something that it wasn’t,” he said in a panel discussion with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson

“A wide waiver privilege has been granted, so I don’t know that we learned a whole bunch of new things.”

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Just before campaigning officially began, a Globe and Mail report thrust the SNC-Lavalin scandal back into the headlines. The story claims the RCMP’s investigation into potential obstruction of justice has been blocked by the federal government. At this point, no formal investigation has been launched.

WATCH (Sept. 13, 2019): Did Justin Trudeau issue largest waiver of cabinet confidence?

Fact check: Did Justin Trudeau issue largest waiver of cabinet confidence?
Fact check: Did Justin Trudeau issue largest waiver of cabinet confidence?

Trudeau has said he won’t overrule the decision to give RCMP access, pointing to cabinet confidence. The decision was made earlier this year at the height of the scandal, to allow former minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to testify.

NDP strategist Anne McGrath believes the investigation should be allowed to proceed.

However, she questioned whether Canadians are paying as close attention to the story as they once did.

“Most Canadians watching this are not following the ins and outs of deferred prosecution agreements and confidantes and all of those kinds of things,” she said.

“I believe that this is not who they thought they were voting for last time, they know that this is not a good story. There’s a kind of whiff around that, that it’s problematic.”

READ MORE: Liberals’ chance at re-election unhindered by SNC-Lavalin affair, new poll suggests

After the writ was issued on Wednesday, Trudeau took questions from reporters, some of which were SNC-Lavalin-related.

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He declined to address what personal mistakes he might have made during the ordeal. His answers to other questions were brief.

“We gave out the largest and most expensive waive of cabinet confidence in Canada’s history,” he said when asked what his government is hiding.

McGrath criticized Trudeau’s tone during the exchange. She said she thought he came off angry “right out of the gate.”

“I thought he talked a little bit too hard,” she said. “I think that what he should be going after is more this idea of that slogan they had before then — not as advertised. I think it should be more of that kind of tone for him.”

WATCH (Sept. 13, 2019): Conservative leader says Canadians tired of Trudeau’s scandals

Federal Election 2019: Scheer says Canadians tired of Trudeau’s scandals
Federal Election 2019: Scheer says Canadians tired of Trudeau’s scandals

If Trudeau wants the story to stop shrouding his campaign, he should “let the RCMP do their job,” said Conservative strategist Fred DeLorey.

“Let them interview the people they want to interview and hand over those documents. The fact that they’re hiding it certainly doesn’t make Mr. Trudeau look good,” he continued.

“You know, he’s ducking debates. He’s not addressing this issue head-on, and he should.”

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Thursday night was the first televised leaders’ debate for the 2019 election. Trudeau decided to skip it.

READ MORE: Fact check: Singh, Scheer and May slam an absent Trudeau with half-truths at debate

There was a consensus among the three leaders that Trudeau’s absence was a sign of cowardice — that he was afraid to defend his record.

Mahoney doesn’t believe Trudeau’s absence was a miss.

“What you did have this week was Mr. Trudeau out there doing some disciplined policy announcements in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton. He wouldn’t have got to do any of that if he was, like the other leaders, locked up in a hotel room getting ready for the attacks to the other guys,” he said.

“He is going to have the chance. Canadians are going to have a chance to see him at least three times beating the other leaders. That’s a lot, and it’s probably more than we traditionally have.”

WATCH (Sept. 13, 2019): NDP leader energized after first policy debate

Federal Election 2019: Singh energized after first policy debate
Federal Election 2019: Singh energized after first policy debate

Trudeau stuck by his decision to participate only in official debates, organized under the Leaders’ Debates Commission. He is set to take part in two debates next month and a third in French hosted by TVA.

“I would argue that in the last campaign, Mr. Trudeau started to take off because he outperformed expectations in that first debate. It set a tone for the campaign. So that’s why I think it makes it even riskier this time,” said McGrath.

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“I don’t think people are going to remember that he didn’t participate in the debate or that that is that important. But it does set a tone for the campaign that I think is going to be problematic.”

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the 2019 federal leaders’ debates

DeLorey believes Trudeau would be better off with more debates penciled in than less.

“They dictate a lot of what we talk about. What happens at these debates is crucial.”

The TVA debate is set for Oct. 2. The English-language debate is Oct. 7 and the French-language debate is Oct. 10.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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