Dominique Poirier, from Radio-Canada, moderated the debate among the leaders: Liberal Paul Martin, Conservative Stephen Harper, New Democrat Jack Layton and the Bloc Qu�b�cois's Gilles Duceppe.
What follows is our Reality Check team's analysis of the debate as it unfolded.
8:01 p.m. EST
Moderator Dominique Poirier has introduced the debate rules and the participants.
8:01 p.m. EST
Each leader had one minute to deliver his opening statement. In the very first televised political debate in North America, the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, each leader had eight minutes for his opening statement. Talk about the shrinking sound bite!
8:02 p.m. EST
The four topics are ethics and governance, social policy, the economy and Canadian unity. The leaders will be answering questions posed by members of the general public that had been taped in advance.
8:07 p.m. EST
In the opening statements, all four leaders shot out of the starting blocks with strong, partisan attacks on each other and their perceived weaknesses. Paul Martin said at one point that he felt Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was looking backward, especially when it came to the interests of modern Quebec. He also accused Harper of wishing to send Canadian soldiers to Iraq, which is not true. Harper said categorically this week that he would not send armed forces to Iraq. Afghanistan is where they are to carry out their duties.
8:08 p.m. EST
Stephen Harper was the only leader not looking directly into the camera for the opening statements.
8:11 p.m. EST
The first question, asked by Gerald Lamarre of Laval and directed to the opposition leaders: Why did you bring the government down, given the expense of holding an election so soon after the last one?
Despite what Duceppe said in his answer, the election was not held last spring because the Liberals won the non-confidence vote, not because the opposition days were removed as Duceppe claimed. The opposition parties did not want to stick to Martin's timetable of a spring 2006 vote because they didn't want to give the Liberals the opportunity to run on their response to Gomery's second report.
The Liberals would not go along with Layton's timetable because it meant Gomery would have been released in the middle of the campaign and there was no way they would have let that happen.
8:14 p.m. EST
The French of the three Anglo leaders seemed pretty good. They were relaxed and appearing confident, all of them remembering to smile. And Harper was now looking into the camera.
8:15 p.m. EST
Martin reminded the audience that he wanted to wait until the spring for an election so that Canadians would have the full benefit of the second Gomery report, due to be released Feb. 1. He said if he had anything to hide, he wouldn't have ordered the Gomery commission in the first place. But the reality is he probably didn't have any choice; the clamour to do something was getting louder by the day and Martin was under pressure to do something to distance himself from the previous Jean Chretien administration.
Harper joked that the election was actually saving Canadians money because the Martin government had been spending about a billion a day in pre-election announcements. None of the opposition leaders admitted that the reason they forced the election now was because they didn't want the Liberals to try to get around the impact of the second Gomery report by fashioning their own response to it.
8:17 p.m. EST
Question asked by Genevieve Laplante of Quebec City: In the sponsorship affair, all the Liberals involved seem to have been deaf, dumb and blind. Why shouldn't we vote for a government less handicapped, which can do something other than wash its hands of the scandal?
As he responded, Duceppe was looking down and reading a direct quote from the Gomery report, to illustrate one of his points on the sponsorship scandal. His copy of the report must be well thumbed through by now.
8:19 p.m. EST
Duceppe pointed out that Martin was vice-president of Treasury Board when the sponsorship scandal was unfolding and should have been asking questions on the file. In that way, he felt Martin was responsible for at least some of what went on. Judge Gomery however exonerated Martin "from any blame for carelessness or misconduct."
8:22 p.m. EST
We were occasionally getting a camera angle showing two of the party leaders in the same frame. Not sure if the leaders were aware when this was going to happen. For example, while Duceppe spoke, a shot showed Martin reaching for his glass of water and taking a drink.
8:24 p.m. EST
A question asked by Jean-Baptiste Foaleng, a resident of Toronto: What�s the best way to prevent another misuse of public funds like the sponsorship scandal?
NDP Leader Jack Layton argued that minority parliaments were a good vehicle, a situation of course that benefits the NDP, which enjoys holding the balance of power. Layton pointed out that the Liberals had been promising day care for years but that it was only during a minority parliament that there was real movement and money on the table. This is largely true, except that Martin set out day care as a priority when he was running for the Liberal leadership and tabbed one of his most prominent junior ministers, former hockey star Ken Dryden to carry it out.
8:27 p.m. EST
After two years of debating the sponsorship scandal, it was hardly surprising that none of the four leaders produced shatteringly new insights. But Martin looked unhappy and uncomfortable when Genevieve Laplante of Quebec City suggested that his government was washing its hands of the whole affair.
Martin's protestations were not enough to shelter him from Harper, who described the Liberals as "the party that stole the money from the taxpayers." Duceppe was no kinder to the Liberal leader, insisting that the Liberals should be prepared to identify the friends of the party who got the dirty money of the sponsorship scandal; it was Martin's duty to reveal the names, he said.
Layton was kinder, not rubbing Martin's nose in the sponsorship scandal but suggesting that life would be better if Parliament accepted the reform package proposed by the widely popular former NDP leader, Ed Broadbent.
8:28 p.m. EST
Of the leaders, Martin and Duceppe seemed to be more expansive with their hand gestures. Martin was pointing with both index fingers at the same time, making hand circles when making a point, and generally looking emphatic. Duceppe's gestures were very expressive yet natural, totally in line with what he was saying. Harper seemed less fluid, with fewer hand gestures visible in the frame of the shot. Layton's gestures recalled his background as a professor; he counted on his fingertips a lot.
8:29 p.m. EST
Question asked by a voter from Lac Simon in Western Quebec: Are you prepared to swear on a Bible or something you find precious that you would keep your electoral promises?
All the leaders hastened to insist they would keep their promises. Harper noted pointedly that Duceppe could promise anything because he was never going to be in a position to do anything about it. And Martin jumped in as well, saying Duceppe had promised to do everything he could to make parliament work - and then forced an election. However, none actually promised to swear on a Bible.
An interesting note: Only one jurisdiction in Canada holds politicians truly accountable. B.C. politicians can actually be charged if they don't tell the truth. The law has only been used successfully one time. In McBride, B.C., the election of the mayor was overturned when it was discovered he wilfully misrepresented his opponent's position on a tax measure. He ran again in a byelection and was re-elected by a larger margin.
8:31 p.m. EST
Layton just became the first leader to attack someone other than Martin, criticizing the Bloc for not supporting him in the spring.
8:34 p.m. EST
Interesting. The moderator would not let the leaders off without actually answering the question: Would they swear on a Bible to keep their promises? Layton, Martin and Harper all replied with the same word: "Absolument. (Absolutely)." Then they went on to pound home their messages again, not willing to lose a chance to say more. But for a second time, Duceppe did not answer with a "yes" or "no." And Ms. Poirier smiled, as if to signal that she was aware of that failure.
8:35 p.m. EST
Harper has brought up an action that was filed by some members of his former organization, the National Citizens Coalition, claiming that the NDP government of B.C. deliberately lied when it claimed its budget was balanced. Several courts ruled in favour of the NCC but ultimately the B.C. Supreme Court threw out the suit.
8:38 p.m. EST
Who provided the uniforms for these guys? Was there some kind of ruling that said they all had to wear the exact same outfits - dark suits and light blue shirts?
8:40 p.m. EST
We had been told to expect a more boring style of debate because of rule changes that prevent the leaders from talking over each other's voices. Some pundits had predicted that the politicians would thus be able to make their rehearsed statements without being challenged. But Poirier is using her moderator's seat to ask for clarification on Harper's answer on private health care.
8:41 p.m. EST
For the second time, Harper began a reply by saying he wasn't sure if he understood the question. Was it the audio level or the language? This time, it was a question on whether a disabled voter can expect to grow old and die in her own home, or would she have to go live in an institution, presumably because of budget cuts.
8:45 p.m. EST
Question asked by Laurent Lacoquelle of Montreal: If one day your child came to you and said he or she was gay, what would your reaction be and what would you say to them?
It was asked of Harper. "I love my children," he replied, "and I always will."
8:49 p.m. EST
Same sex is a tough one for Harper, who has promised a free vote in the House of Commons to see if MPs want to try to reverse the effect of last year's same-sex marraige legislation. He is alone on this issue. Most constitutional experts say it would be difficult to turn the clock back on this issue without using the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Harper has never spelled out how he would be able to do this without using it, but insists he will never use it.
Harper seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the question of how he would react if his children proclaimed they were gay. His discomfort was reminiscent of the American presidential debate in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was asked how he would respond if his wife were raped.
Moderator Poirier has asked Harper whether he would use the charter's notwithstanding clause to put an end to same-sex marriages, if Parliament voted that way. His answer was strong, loud and clear: "I will never use the notwithstanding clause on that issue."
8:56 p.m. EST
Using videotaped questions from real Canadians really added some life to this thing. Pierre Plourde of Surrey, B.C., had his toddler on his lap while he asked what the government was doing to help his family afford francophone child care at a cost of $35 a day. The Plourdes, p�re et fils, were sitting in their cozy-looking home. Some questioners were standing on city streets or in bucolic-looking rural areas. The only downside was the cruel contrast between the lively settings of the videotaped questions and the sterile-looking stone-hall set where the politicians' answers were delivered. Talk about ivory towers.
The honkin' big maple leaf on the floor of the broadcast set was a nice touch, though. Very bright. Very "O Canada."
9:00 p.m. EST
When the debate got to the matter of private health care, the four leaders all dutifully swore their allegiance to public medicare and Martin at least tried to pretend that all was well and happy in the world of medicare. After all, just a few weeks ago the government produced $40 billion to reduce waiting times for treatment.
Harper carefully insisted that he was opposed to two-tier medicare. But the waiting lists are long, he said, as even the Supreme Court has agreed. What is important is that the government provide the money so that waiting times be reduced to acceptable limits. If that is publicly or privately delivered, it does not really matter.
Others would regard that as the private care elephant waddling into the tent but Harper shrugged and said that the Liberals had not fixed the problem in a generation, so what does it matter if delivery of health care is done privately or publicly?
As might be expected of a sovereigntist leader, Duceppe had his own particular take on waiting times. Look at all those bureaucrats in Ottawa, he said, None of them is running a hospital, so why are they there? The solution is for the federal government to give the money to Quebec and the other provinces, and waiting times wil magically disappear.
Layton also had his own special view of Martin and the Liberal record. Despite all of Martin's promises, he said, under the Liberals there has been a significant increase in private care. Layton is right on this, because private clinics have sprouted up in five or six provinces, but of course there has been a substantial element of private care in the public system from the start - to the point where 30 per cent of health care in the country is privately funded.
Asked to justify the chronic housing shortages in some cities that leave homeless people on the streets, Martin noted that his government put $2 billion into public housing a few years ago and then topped this up again in the November mini-budget. That is true. But it doesn't account for the fact that it was the Liberal budgets, when Martin was finance minister in the mid-1990s, which cut the budget of the federal housing authority almost completely, as part of its austerity push. Many social commentators have suggested it was these cuts that entrenched a homeless population and a dearth of low-income housing. In Montreal, the vacancy rate for apartments less than $500 a month is nearly zero, Duceppe said. Part of that of course has to do with building booms in the larger centres, which have knocked down the old housing stock in favour of modern condos.
9:07 p.m. EST
Harper has some vulnerability on the question of natives. His main policy adviser, Tom Flanagan, is very outspoken on native issues. According to a profile in the Walrus Magazine:
"In [his book "First Nations, Second Thoughts"], Flanagan dismissed the continent's First Nations as merely its 'first immigrants' who trekked across the Bering Strait from Siberia, preceding the French and British et al by a few thousand years - a rewrite which neatly eliminates any indigenous entitlement. Then, invoking the spectre of a country decimated by land claims, he argued the only sensible native policy was outright assimilation."
9:08 p.m. EST
A unique question from a man in the Saguenay region of Quebec: What did the leaders think of cutting the GST on essential goods and keeping it only on luxury items and gas-guzzling autos> The premise of the question, however, that the GST was only imposed as a temporary measure, does not square with the position put forward by the Mulroney government when the hated tax was first imposed.
Only Duceppe wants to cut the GST on certain essential items, but his choices are more limited: products such as diapers, feminine hygiene products and books, which Duceppe says are essential carriers of culture. But Harper said it was too expensive administratively to cut the tax just on selected items. His platform, of course, would cut the GST by two percentage points over the next five years.
Martin said cutting the GST really only benefits the rich and that there are more tax breaks to be had for ordinary Canadians in cutting income taxes. Both assertions are challengeable. Many economists - and the Liberals when they first opposed the GST - have noted that consumer taxes like the GST are a heavy burden on low-income people because they spend much more of their income purchasing things. The Liberals also were in favour of eliminating the GST entirely when they were returned to power in 1993, seeing it then as the best way to benefit a large number of people, especially those extremely low-income families who don't pay income taxes.
Four words you never thought you'd hear from Paul Martin's mouth: "Mr. Duceppe is right." He was agreeing with the Bloc leader that lowering income taxes helps low-income families more than cutting the GST, as Harper has proposed.
9:10 p.m. EST
A question from Michel Leblanc of Moncton: In this time of global markets and factory closings in rural areas, what would you do to stimulate the economy so that people don�t have to move?
9:14 p.m. EST
Challenged with the cruelty of factories closing down and Canadian citizens being forced to move from their own regions, each of the leaders shook his head in sympathy and agreed that something had to be done.
But what? Ah, that was the problem. Each had a thought. A series of policies, said Duceppe. The kind of global plan that the federal government has set up in New Brunswick, said Martin. Nobody can find the Liberal strategies, Layton said. An economic strategy that is forward looking, said Harper. Next question.
9:15 p.m. EST
The moderator has now had to cut off Layton in mid-answer twice, because he's exceeding time limits. Everyone else has been able to wrap things up in time, with only an occasional rush of words to beat the clock.
9:18 p.m. EST
Layton claimed there was more the federal government could do to keep gas prices reasonable. Harper said the federal power was limited in this area. The Competition Bureau would seem to support Harper's view. From the Competition Bureau website:
"The Competition Bureau is responsible for the administration of the Competition Act, which includes provisions against price fixing, price maintenance and abusive behaviour by a dominant firm, among others. All of its provisions apply to gasoline and other petroleum products markets.
The act does not provide the bureau with the power to regulate prices. In fact, the federal government does not have the constitutional power to enact legislation to regulate the retail price of gasoline except in a national emergency. The constitutional power to regulate retail gasoline prices rests with the provincial governments."
9:22 p.m. EST
Martin has been holding onto his pen throughout his answers on high oil prices and the big federal surplus, waving it around. At one point he scratched his face with the same hand that was holding the pen. He might want to watch that; it's easy to forget what you're holding and end up writing on your cheek.
9:27 p.m. EST
Duceppe was ridiculing the Martin government for continually miscalculating what the federal surplus would be. "I call that financial dyslexia," the Bloc leader said. Actually, learning disability experts would call a problem handing numbers "dyscalculia." It's a lovely bilingual word, the same in both English and French.
9:28 p.m. EST
Why did they bother flying all the way to Vancouver to do this debate when they created a set that replicates the lobby of the House of Commons and there are no questions of regional interest?
9:33 p.m. EST
Layton was the only one of the opposition leaders to say anything really critical of the other two. He just criticized Duceppe for the second time, and called Harper too pro-American.
9:35 p.m. EST
Alone of the four leaders, only Martin would not agree that there was a "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces, that is between a federal government that is projecting $54 billion in surplus revenues over the next five years against many provinces, Quebec prominent among them, that are running significant deficits. Martin's argument was that the first thing he did on becoming prime minister two years ago was to sign a huge $41-billion health-care transfer to the provinces to help them respond to the many pressures they were facing. He also noted that when the Liberals were returned to power in 1993, Ottawa faced a deficit of over $40 billion and was in danger of becoming a fiscal basket case by international standards.
What he didn't note, of course, was that it was the Martin budgets in the mid-1990s that cut transfers to the provinces and put the provinces under the fiscal gun for much of a decade, causing some even to shut hospitals and lay off nurses.
At the moment, only Ottawa and oil-rich Alberta are showing significant surpluses. But B.C. just balanced its budget and Ontario and Quebec have said they are moving toward a balanced budget before their next elections.
9:39 p.m. EST
An e-mailed reaction from a reader on the question of wardrobe, specifically ties.
"Harper has moved from a Windsor knot to a three-point knot - and has the perfect width tie to display this - and the sharpest pattern. He also has the best-fitted suit and, for me, a painfully anal hanky in the pocket - but one that is perfectly folded to match said three-point tie. Duceppe, on the other hand, has the three-point knot, but his tie is too wide to really give it the right feel, and while Martin also sports a three-point knot (or may even have slipped in a half-Windsor) - his tie is too thin (this leaving Martin and Duceppe, ultimately, in a tie - so to speak)."
9:41 p.m. EST
Harper may not have endeared himself to French viewers at one point near the end. While answering a question on protecting the culture of francophones outside Quebec, Harper joked that he was still trying to learn "my country's second language." It may be his second language. But under the Official Languages Act, both English and French are of equal status.
Harper was the only one who said, on at least two occasions, that he had trouble understanding the question. Still, he did a credible job with most of the answers and - of course - one of the hardest things to do in one's second language is make a joke.
9:44 p.m. EST
Duceppe is going way back for this one: "If anyone has ever hurt Quebec, it's the Liberals, from time immemorial." Actually, wasn't it the British, to begin with, on the Plains of Abraham?
In all seriousness, Duceppe is getting off some pithy, short lines. Makes sense, since French is his native language. "Of course you have to win," he just said of what he sees as Quebec's inevitable choice to leave Canada. "Winning is good. Yogi Berra said so."
9:46 p.m. EST
A national unity question from a citizen from Quebec City: Mr. Martin has said that a vote for the Bloc Qu�b�cois is a vote for sovereignty. If the dominance of the Bloc is confirmed in Quebec in this election, would you prepared to recognize that Quebecers have effectively expressed their desire to redefine the political status of Quebec?
9:47 p.m. EST
Another question on the same topic, asked by Christian Rioux from Gasp�: When the Bloc Qu�b�cois was born, Lucien Bouchard said the party would exist for only one or two elections. But it�s still there after 15 years of supposedly protecting Quebec�s interests. Is it really in the interest of Quebec to always be in opposition?
9:48 p.m. EST
Put down the pen, Mr. Martin. It's starting to look like a weapon. Or a security blanket.
9:52 p.m. EST
Martin was very strong in his attack on Duceppe and the sovereigntist agenda, a message that might resonate more in the rest of Canada than in Quebec. He has been more passionate on this question than on any other issue tonight. Harper was tougher on the Liberals than on the Bloc, no doubt in order to attract federalist voters away from the Liberals to the Conservatives. Layton pursued the same strategy. Both Layton and Harper seem very reluctant to criticize the Bloc. Duceppe was unusually evasive on the question of whether a Bloc victory would help sovereignty happen.
9:53 p.m. EST
Thank you, Mr. Martin. The pen is gone.
9:54 p.m. EST
National unity sparked one of the few moments of apparent emotion in the debate, but none of the leaders had a plan to persuade Quebec to ratify the 1982 Canadian Constitution.
The emotion came briefly from Martin when he turned on Duceppe and accused him of wanting to divide the country, although it was a judgment that was not really a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Duceppe or the Bloc.
Martin had also gone out of his way to remind people that he had chosen to become a Quebecer 40 years ago, and he would like to find some way for Quebec to sign onto the Constitution. But beyond promising a more flexible federalism, Martin provided no blueprint.
Layton also went out of his way to establish his Quebec roots, stressing that his family came from Vaudreuil. He shrugged off his two opposition colleagues by saying the Bloc simply does not want to remain in Canada and the Conservatives want a more American Canada.
Duceppe did his best to remain above the eager nationalism of his three opponents by allowing that Canada was a great country that he very much respected. But if Europe works satisfactorily, he said, it is because each of its members is sovereign.
10:01 p.m. EST
Once more, although there were occasional rough patches, the three English-speaking leaders acquitted themselves satisfactorily in French, so the evening was only the second time in Canadian history that political leaders have conducted themselves in passable French.
The relative skills of the three was the same as when they first met for the 2004 election debate. Martin was obviously more skilled than the others and did not stumble as painfully as he did during the debate 18 months ago. Layton and Harper could not match the Liberal leader's fluency, although Layton spoke with a comfortably-Quebec accent rather than Harper's more formal language school delivery.
10:03 p.m. EST
All in all, it was a pretty civil debate as these things go. The one-minute answers imposed by the barrage of nearly 70 questions did not leave much room for too many partisan jabs. In fact, when asked by one voter what kind of country they envisioned 30 years from now, the replies were almost caricatures of the four men and the parties they lead.
Jack Layton said he saw a country where child poverty was a thing of the past. Gilles Duceppe said he saw two sovereign nations treating each other as equals. Paul Martin said - Wilfrid Laurier-like - that he saw a great united "country of the future," rich in energy wealth and diversity, while Stephen Harper said he saw a nation that wouldn't be a world power, but better than it is now and at least able to defend itself. That was the legacy he wanted to leave his children.
10:06 p.m. EST
Beware of pundits and pollsters tonight and tomorrow who ask the question, "Who do you think won the debate?" It makes for an interesting parlour game, but the question is meaningless. For the past several elections, the "winner" of the debate went on to lose the election. The only question that matters is how the debate influences how people will vote on Jan. 23, and the answer to that question will only be known later in the campaign and after we've seen more of the debates.
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