Uncertainty over start date, debates ratchet up pre-election angst

OTTAWA — A campaign that could start at any time and a debate schedule that is itself the subject of debate intensified pre-election jitters in Ottawa going into the weekend.

Observers are keenly monitoring the schedules and public appearances of MPs, the governor general and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discern when the election call is coming.

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The prime minister may be considering the implications of a strong storm striking Atlantic Canada, the Manitoba election Sept. 10, and the state of the shadow-campaigning already happening across the country.

Elected MPs have been out and about in their ridings for weeks, while nominated candidates are also hitting the hustings before the official launch of the campaign. Opposition parties have also accused the government of campaigning on the public dime, as the Liberals have made hundreds of funding announcements over the course of the summer.

As of late Friday, Seniors Minister Filomena Tassi had an anti-racism announcement scheduled for Monday morning. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had an event scheduled for Monday afternoon — on "how the Government of Canada is helping Canadians get the skills and training they need to succeed in a changing economy" — at a union hall just outside Windsor, Ont.

Government announcements like those would not be OK in mid-campaign. But it's two events, after daily torrents of them, and they could yet be cancelled.

The end of the pre-writ period will come only when Trudeau takes a trip to Rideau Hall to ask Gov. Gen. Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament. At the latest, that visit will come Sept. 15.

One consideration the prime minister has already taken off the table is a debate scheduled for Sept. 12, organized by the magazine Maclean's and television network Citytv.

The Liberal party wrote Thursday to decline an invitation to the debate, according to Maclean's columnist Paul Wells, who will moderate the event. The debate will still be held, Wells said, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May committed to attend.

Wells said though Maclean's was sorry Trudeau would not attend, it makes "perfect sense" to hold the debate with the leaders of the opposition parties. He added the Liberal leader's decision was "entirely legitimate" in the context of the coming election campaign.

"It proves what I've argued all along, which is that these are political decisions based on perceived partisan interest, and not principled decisions," he said.

Also on Friday, the Liberal party confirmed it will take part in a debate organized by Quebec broadcaster TVA. Neither Elizabeth May nor Maxime Bernier has been invited to the French-language debate, to be held Oct. 2.

In an emailed statement, May said it was "shocking" the TVA event would take place without her party, given its support in Quebec and prominent candidates. She urged other federal leaders to withdraw from the event unless "all" leaders were included.

The Liberal party had already re-iterated Thursday its commitment that Trudeau will be in two debates in October organized by a federal commission and produced by a consortium of media companies.

A broad media partnership is producing the two "official" debates Oct. 7 and Oct. 10. In its statement the Liberal party said, "The commission debates will be widely distributed on television, radio, digital and social streaming platforms and reach the largest possible audience."

The party has not explicitly said whether Trudeau would attend a debate on foreign policy organized by Munk Debates and scheduled for Oct. 1.

Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, said in an interview Friday his organization had not received a formal answer from the Liberals. He said Munk Debates reserves the right to carry on with the event without Trudeau, with a decision coming closer to the Sept. 24 deadline it gave invited leaders to respond.

Griffiths said a campaign with only two debates would be a "step back for the democratic process."

"It's about the public's demand that politicians make themselves available, that elections are an opportunity for the public to see their leaders tested," he said.

"(Trudeau) is the person that has set foreign policy for the past four years," and so his attendance at the debate would be invaluable, Griffiths continued.

But he said that given the possibility of a Conservative win or a minority government, it is also worthwhile to hear the views of the other party leaders — Scheer, May and Singh — who have confirmed their participation.

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