By J.W. Schnarr
It was an opportunity to see what the leaders of the four federal political parties could do when placed on a national stage, as Maclean’s magazine kicked off the federal election campaign with the first English-speaking debate.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper squared off against New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. And while the evening was marked with fiery barbs from all sides, the incumbent took the brunt of the heat.
Maclean’s editor Paul Wells acted as the moderator, navigating the leaders through a gamut of questions over the two-hour event, including the economy, energy and the environment, the state of Canada’s democracy, and foreign policy and security. The event was live-tweeted on both the Taber Times (@TaberTimes) and Vauxhall Advance (@VauxhallAdvance) Twitter feeds.
While Harper was forced to fend off attacks and condemnations from all three left-of-centre parties in regards to his record on the economy, the environment, and the state of Canada’s democracy, he stood his ground on topics traditionally favoured by the right, including security and terrorism.
At one point in the debate, with Mulcair and Trudeau in a dog fight over Quebec sovereignty, Harper stepped in and looked like the senior statesman as he dismissed the argument altogether. “Why are you trying to throw gasoline on a fire that isn’t even burning?” he asked the two squabbling leaders.
In regards to Islamic State, Harper remained strong, saying the terror organization “has become the global nerve centre” of a world force of terror and death.
Over the course of the evening, each leader seemed to shine at times. May showed she belonged on stage with the other leaders when she took Harper to task over his claims his government had reduced greenhouse gas emissions twice under his leadership.
May shot back that he was taking credit for emissions reductions in Canada in 2008 and 2009, but that the drop was caused by global recession, not policy.
Trudeau also took aim at the prime minister during the defense of his environmental record, setting Twitter on fire when he declared, “Mr. Harper, nobody believes you!”
Mulcair had his own shining moments, which included a condemnation on Harper’s record on the economy.
“Mr. Harper, we can’t afford you for another four years,” he said.
In closing, Harper highlighted a safe and stable Canada and tried to paint a fearful and uncertain future under the rule of the other parties.
“This election is about who has the proven experience to keep Canada safe, and our economy strong,” he said, noting many countries are facing turmoil and uncertainty. He lauded Canada’s strengths in the face of worldwide economic chaos, and said the strategies of other parties would lead to that same economic ruin.
Mulcair told viewers there is a clear choice in the coming election, that of continued Conservative rule or his own NDP. He pointed to eight Conservative deficits and $150 billion added to Canadian debt.
“Mr. Harper has the worst job record since the Second World War,” he said.
“The biggest risk to Canadians is four more years of Harper’s Conservatives,” he added.
In her closing arguments, May made an impassioned plea for more opportunities to debate alongside the other leaders, as her party has been left out of serious discussion in the past. There is also a level of uncertainty as to whether there will be more debates before the election on Oct. 19.
“I invite you to get to know us,” she said. “We’re not a one-issue party.
“We believe in a Canada that works for all of us.”
Trudeau opted to close with a dramatic statement to signify his vision of Canada, and to counter the barrage of Harper attack ads. He said one thing he had learned from his famous father, Pierre, was that “to lead this country, you have love this country. Love it more than you crave power. It needs to run through your veins. You need to feel it in your bones.”
He also went on to say while Harper wants Canadian to believe they simply can’t do any better, Trudeau believes the prime minister is wrong.
“We are who we are, and Canada is what it is, because in our hearts we’ve always known that better is possible,” he said.
While the debate itself is over, interested viewers have the opportunity to revisit the event online. The entire broadcast, including post-debate interviews, has been posted by Maclean’s, and there has been extensive coverage and analysis of the event online.