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Leaders' Debate Analysis -
December 16, 2005

CBC.ca's Reality Check Team - Ira Basen, John Gray, Carolyn Ryan and Robert Sheppard � posted their thoughts on the debate as it unfolded, Friday, Dec. 16, 2005.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Liberal Leader Paul Martin and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe squared off for the first of two English-language debates. The moderator was former journalist and broadcast executive Trina McQueen.

10:05 p.m. EST

Was there a knockout punch? Do you really have to ask? There has not been a knockout punch in a Canadian political debate in nearly 20 years, and don't hold your breath waiting for the next one. The format of this debate certainly did not lend itself to a "defining moment." But the main reason why there are no knockout punches is that leaders no longer answer questions directly. They bob and weave and, when in doubt, they evade the question entirely. No well-coached party leader would stand at the centre of the ring and get pummelled by their opponent the way Brian Mulroney hammered John Turner in 1984. So here's an idea, let's drop this hoary old cliché, and stop looking for knockout punches. —IB
10:00 p.m. EST

It is only toward the end of the evening that the debate suddenly acquires a passion and intensity that has eluded the proceedings. Inevitably, it is national unity and the future of Canada.

After a relentless pummelling from his three opponents, Paul Martin finally explodes and strikes out at Gilles Duceppe. Visibly emotional, the Liberal leader dons the mantle of Captain Canada and tells the Bloc Québécois leader that "You are not going to take my country away from me."

The question is what would the federal government do if the Quebec government unilaterally declared independence from Canada. Martin turns the question against Duceppe and announces that there can be no legal unilateral declaration, no backdoor way of taking the province out of Canada.

"You're not going to win, Mr. Duceppe. I'll tell you that."

Martin's attack comes after Thursday's debate and then the Friday evening debate in which the three other leaders use almost every possible opportunity to remind viewers about the sponsorship scandal, accusing the Liberals of corruption and pointng to the scandal for the increased support for separatism. As Layton says, rewarding the Liberals by returning them to office will send a message to Quebecers that they are not respected. As Harper says the only way Quebec would opt for separatism is if the federal government is so tarnished that Quebecers are effectively pushed out.
9:57 p.m. EST

A young woman from British Columbia asked about what George H. Bush called "the vision thing." She asked each leader where they would like the country to be in 50 years. This is the same question that ended the French debate last night, except the time frame then was 30 years. This is the kind of question that a skilled politician can usually hit out of the ballpark, but both yesterday and today, Harper, like Bush before him, seemed hard pressed to do the vision thing. Both times that he was called upon to answer the question, he did not use the full time allocated to him. He is clearly more comfortable in the policy realm.

Give credit to Layton for raising, perhaps the first time in the debate, the issue of sustainable development. Duceppe pulled an interesting twist by referencing Bill Clinton's speech in Mt. Tremblant before the last referendum. Duceppe made it sound as if Clinton was giving some sort of intellectual foundation for separatism, when in fact, Clinton was brought in by Prime Minister Chretien to do precisely the opposite. —IB
9:54 p.m. EST

After a passionate, nearly visceral debate between the four leaders over Quebec's future, the issue of western alienation was one for everyone to take a deep breath. Martin says western alienation is a real thing, not a myth and there was little disagreement. The West wants in and Quebec wants out was Duceppe's quick and almost too casual summary. Few new ideas, however, were raised to deal with presumed malaise of a region that is undergoing an economic, energy-driven boom and has become a magnet for almost every imaginable job seeker.

Martin says the answer to western alienation is to show the flag with strong ministers from the region, as he has done with such ministers as Ralph Goodale, Anne McLellan and Ujjal Dosanjh.

Harper, on the other hand, argues for structural change, in particular an elected Senate. Such a beast however is not possible without full-bore constitutional reform which all leaders recognize as unlikely. Harper's plan would be to authorize provincial governments to hold elections when there are Senate vacancies in their region and he promises, as prime minister, to appoint the winner.
9:49 p.m. EST

Are those Canada geese in the background as a questioner from B.C. asks what vision the leaders have for Canada 50 years down the road? Talk about attention to detail on the part of the producers...

Seriously, this new tactic of having normal Canadians asking questions on videotape for the leaders to answer does help the program stay visually interesting. Earlier we had a gun owner wearing a shirt that said "Release the hunter," for example. There have been young people, older people, new Canadians. Helps shake up a program built around four white men in near-identical suits.

It gets some new voices in there too, posing questions with real stakes to those posing them. Apparently 10,000 questions were submitted for the first two debates. The party leaders have got to be wondering what the other 9,970 or so people were concerned about, leading up to Jan. 23.
9:36 p.m. EST

On a question of how to convince sovereigntists they should stay in Canada, Harper is rhyming off a list of names of candidates running for the Conservatives in Quebec.

Guess he's been doing some cramming since that day at the start of the campaign when he was standing on a stage in Montreal with a bunch of his candidates standing behind him, and didn't introduce them. That was hailed as a sign he wasn't really all that interested in winning Quebec seats.

Of course, the more anti-Liberal votes the Conservatives attract, the fewer there will be available for BQ candidates. And that could let Liberals slip up the middle.

What to do, what to do...
9:32 p.m. EST

A question from Calgary about whether NAFTA should be renegotiated in light of the softwood lumber dispute opened some doors that carried the leaders all the way to Iraq. The 1988 leaders' debate was all about the Free Trade Agreement, but unlike then, there is little disagreement among the party leaders. All deplore the behaviour of the U.S. in the softwood lumber dispute, and none, not even the NDP, wants to ditch the agreement completely, a significant change from 17 years ago.

Harper took a calculated risk by challenging Martin's record on Iraq. He claimed that according to former U.S. Ambassador Paul Celluci, Martin once pledged to send troops to Iraq. But the Conservative portrayal of Martin's statements on Iraq is problematic. On the Conservative Party website posted today, the Conservatives include a quote of Martin's from the North Bay Nugget of April 30, 2003. "Canada should get over to Iraq as quickly as possible,� Martin is quoted as saying. But the full quote is "I really think Canada should get over to Iraq as quickly as possible. There's a huge need for front-line medical professionals. There's a huge need for policing. And there's a huge need for infrastructure rebuilding." The Conservatives never include the second half of the quote, leaving the impression that Martin wanted to send Canadian troops to Iraq. —IB
9:27 p.m. EST

What will help me, a disabled woman from Orillia, Ont., asks: a cut in the GST, which she seemed to want, or a cut in income taxes?

Harper not surprisingly argues for the GST, his promise to reduce the GST by two percentage points over the next five years is a campaign centrepiece. It's not without its convoluted history however.

The plan to cut GST by two percentage points came out of the blue, after the party had decided at its March convention that the best way to make our tax system fair would be to cut income tax and move to a simpler tax system. That's what the Liberals put forward in November.

The Conservative 2004 election platform also favoured reducing the federal tax rate on middle income Canadians by more than 25 per cent, rather than cutting the GST. This latest policy is being attacked by economists, who for the most part agree that his earlier plan to cut income tax would have been more efficient.

�From an economic point of view, it wouldn�t be my first choice," Bill Robson, senior vice-president of the CD Howe Institute, told CBC Newsworld. "If you want tax cuts that are going to promote work, going to promote saving, help us invest more and raise living standards in the future, the GST is not the tax you would go after." Financial experts add that Canada�s main problem is productivity, an issue a GST cut would not address. Income tax cuts, on the other hand, could encourage employees to work more. However, the National Anti-Poverty Organization has said that cutting the GST has the most benefits of any type of tax cut for low-income families. —RS
9:24 p.m. EST

Flashback to the ghosts of debates past.

Layton has had his microphone cut off four times now for going over time while delivering his message. The second time, his voice could be heard finishing his heated thought for several seconds more. Harper has also had his mike cut off at least twice.

Remember when you couldn't hear anyone because everyone was talking over everybody else? —CR
9:21 p.m. EST

Layton's wearing his heart on his wrist, or at least indulging in some political product placement. While scolding Martin over his recent troubles when it comes to American relations, Layton pointed his finger at the Liberal leader, allowing his suit jacket to ride up and display a white rubber band. It's a "Make Poverty History" bracelet. Does that count as a personal prop? Don't know if that's a no-no under the new rules.
9:14 p.m. EST

Child care has to provide parents with choice, Martin says, stealing the Conservatives' slogan on this issue. But Martin means it another way. The Liberal leader, the NDP's Layton and Duceppe of the Bloc all want a national child-care system - run through the provinces, municipalities and community groups, with the basic funding coming from Ottawa. Only Harper wants to give day-care dollars directly to parents, in his case $1,200 a year for every child five and under. That's what he calls choice.

Harper may not have the strongest handle on this issue, however. He argues his plan will get around the 85 per cent of day-care costs that are wasted on administration. But the reality is the other way around: day-care costs are 85 per cent salaries, almost all experts agree.

On top of this, the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives all seem to be overstating the number of day-care spaces their policies would generate. Looking after toddlers is costly when it's done professionally - upwards of $20,000 an infant when capital costs of constructing or leasing a centre are included.

Statscan reports that a little over 25 per cent of pre-school age kids attend day care, even though almost 70 per cent of women with children in this age group are in the workforce. Most young kids are looked after by a parent or relative. —RS
9:09 p.m. EST

Three of the four leaders � Harper, Layton and Martin � claim family roots in Atlantic Canada, and they all agree that something must be done to rescue the economy of Atlantic Canada. But what? Harper wants regional strategies and Layton wants more investment in post-secondary education and investment rather than corporate tax cuts.

Although he has been in government for the past dozen years Martin is just as keen as the others, urging better infrastructure and better re-training - all pushed by a pro-active government.

Duceppe is content to look back rather than forward. Part of the problem, he says, is that the Liberal government plundered the unemployment insurance fund of $48-billion. If that had not happened, things might have been different.
9:09 p.m. EST

Harper and Layton are hastening to claim roots in New Brunswick, in response to a questioner from Fredericton who wants to know how the leaders would help the economy grow so that young people can stay in the region. Who knew the province was so well-connected politically?

Hold it, now Martin, too, has claimed Maritime roots, but unlike the others, is not elaborating.

Duceppe isn't bothering. There's no chance of Maritimers voting for the Bloc.
9:06 p.m. EST

The parties and the TV networks spent a lot of money to hold these debates in Vancouver. Why then did they build a set that looks like the lobby of the House of Commons? Where are the mountains and the seascapes? And why are there no questions of specific interest to the West? —IB
9:04 p.m. EST

Did Layton really just say his party would increase civility in the House of Commons by electing more women? That's placing a big burden on the gender that produced Sheila Copps, Hedy Fry, Carolyn Parrish and Deborah Grey. Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a "bad-word jar," with MPs having to pay a twoonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease. Why not just promise to elect more polite people as MPs, or discipline the ones you've got now? —CR
9:00 p.m. EST

Last night, the three opposition leaders wore almost identical ties — striped navy, pale blue and pale yellow. Tonight there is clear differentiation, with Harper wearing pale blue, Duceppe wearing silvery grey, and Layton wearing deep red, closest to Martin's more Liberal red. Perhaps was meant as a fashion harbinger that Canadians would have a clearer choice tonight, or at least an easier time telling the players apart. —CR
8:57 p.m. EST

Now it's Layton who is invoking the spirit of an admired past leader: Ed Broadbent, when it comes to the NDP's proposed ethics package. Can Harper top that, given the rocky recent history of Canada's right-leaning parties? —CR
8:55 p.m. EST

Should election promises be somehow backed by a law to punish those who don't keep them? A voter from Pugwash, N.S., wants to know but he likely doesn't get much satisfaction from the four leaders. All promise to keep the ones they are making. But they admit enshrining this principle in law is not easy.

Harper tried this once before and it backfired. In 2000, a member of the National Citizens Coalition, which Harper led, charged three NDP MLAs in British Columbia with fraud, claiming they should have known that their government�s claim that the 1996 provincial budget was balanced was not true. The case surprised many by making it all the way to the B.C. Supreme Court before being tossed out when the judge ruled she could find no evidence of fraudulent behaviour.

British Columbia election law stipulates that a candidate cannot use �fraudulent means� to win votes. It defines �fraudulent means� as �misrepresentations of material fact which were intended to, and did, lead voters to vote for a candidate or party for whom the voter would not otherwise have voted�.

Then in March 2000, a B.C. court overturned the results of a mayoralty election in the small town of MacBride B.C., ruling that the successful candidate had knowingly included incorrect information about his opponent�s position on a tax measure in his campaign literature. It was the first time that a sitting politician had been removed for not telling the truth during a campaign, and the decision sent chills through many B.C. politicians.

�We all colour things to a certain degree to further distinguish ourselves from our opponents,� argued a city councillor from Surrey, before going on to declare he would never �lie� to get elected. Meanwhile, in McBride, the ousted mayor was returned by the voters in a byelection several months after the ruling. —RS
8:53 p.m. EST

Politicians as crooks? Jack Layton's inclination is to treat it as a gentle philosophical inquiry, an excuse to say that there must be democratic reform and all politicians must be held accountable. But the other two opposition leaders see the question as a fine opportunity to bash Paul Martin over the head for the Liberal role in the sponsorship scandal. Harper pronounces the sponsorship affair a scandal unparalleled in Canadian history. It must not go unpunished and the Liberals must be held accountable. Duceppe recalls that when the scandal first broke the Liberals accused the Bloc Québécois of inventing things, but then everyone found out what was really going on.

An unhappy Martin recalls that his own father was a veteran politician, whose career he admired. So accusations of dishonesty against all politicians hurt him. So that is why he appointed the Gomery commission to look into the sponsorship scandal, he says, because he is convinced that openness and honesty pays off. —JG
8:52 p.m. EST

The questioner asked an interesting question. "What will you do to prevent MPs from hopping from one party to the next?" In one of the debate's unintentionally lighter moments Layton declared that the "NDP was opposed to hopping," no doubt dashing the hopes of politically active left-of-centre bunny rabbits from coast to coast. This was the Belinda question, and the three opposition leaders were united in their disgust for her hop across the aisle last spring.

Harper raised the spectre of the highly dubious Grewal tape when he accused the Liberals of attempting to bribe Conservative MPs with promises of ambassadorships. In what was the first unexpected moment of the debate, Martin turned to Harper and asked if he would renounce his previous support for third party advertising by groups like the National Citizens Coalition. The move might have backfired when Harper shot back that Martin had stolen public advertising dollars so he should not be so concerned about private ad dollars. —IB
8:50 p.m. EST

Layton is vehement in his insistence that the NDP opposes MPs �hopping back and forth across the House� for political gain. �That�s wrong,� he has just thundered.

Hmmm� has there ever been a sitting MP who jumped TO the New Democratic Party? —CR
8:48 p.m. EST

Answering a question about the sponsorship scandal, Harper has said a new Conservative government would protect people like former civil servant Allan Cutler, �who was run out of the government when he blew the whistle.�

Actually, that's not entirely correct. Chuck Guité declared Cutler�s job in the bureaucracy �surplus� when Cutler questioned how Guité was running the sponsorship program. But after Cutler grieved Guité�s decision, it was overturned. Cutler was transferred to another department, and the first of a handful of audits into Guité�s behaviour was launched. Turns out the probe�s conclusions were mostly ignored, and Guité was even given more power over spending. Cutler, who is now running for the Conservatives in Ottawa South, voluntarily left the bureaucracy a few years later. —CR
8:46 p.m. EST

Asked directly why he personally should not be held accountable for the sponsorship scandal that was the subject of the Gomery inquiry, Martin argues that was exactly what he did: he turned the inquiry's findings over to the RCMP, he launched lawsuits to reclaim the squandered money and he did not hesitate to call the inquiry in the first place.

He probably had little choice on that last point. The clamour was pretty loud. Martin didn't, however, take direct responsibility for knowing anything about the sponsorship scandal in advance and Judge Gomery in fact exonerated him from having any direct knowledge of what was going on.

Much of this back and forth has been a staple of the current campaign. Duceppe repeats his challenge from the previous debate that Martin reveal the names of those who received the roughly $300,000 in ill-gotten campaign money - the stuff that was funnelled to party organizers from ad execs - something of extreme interest in the internecine world of Quebec politics. Harper appears to up the tenor a bit: he says Canadians are not going to see anybody in jail over this until there is a new government in office in Ottawa. —RS
8:42 p.m. EST

Some people in English Canada wonder why Gilles Duceppe is asked to participate in the English language debate and the Green Party is not. After all, the Bloc runs no candidates in English Canada and the Green Party does. The official distinction is that the Bloc has seats in Parliament and the Green Party does not. There are also numbers that support the inclusion of the Bloc. There are 1,177,160 people in Quebec who are not francophones, 16% of the Quebec population. In 2004, the Green Party received 582,247 votes across Canada. IB
8:36 p.m. EST

A questioner wonders what the leaders would do to help foreign-trained professionals work within their field in Canada. It is unlikely he came away satisfied with the answers. Layton offered no real solutions, concentrating on his critique of the government record. He made a direct pitch for the immigrant vote saying the Liberals used to be the party of immigrants, but not any more. What was missing from all the responses was a recognition that a large part of this problem lies with professional associations that are often not open to expanding their membership, and various provincial regulations. —IB
8:34 p.m. EST

No one has an exact answer on this but if you listen to our political leaders either 1.3 million Canadians (Harper) or five million (Layton) don't have access to a family doctor. What to do? Layton has the more novel notion: he wants to retrain and relaunch the many doctors and other medical personnel who come to Canada from abroad but end up driving taxis because they can't find employment in their fields.

A good idea, but the problem with it is that licencing rules are in the hands of provinces and their respective professional bodies, not the federal Parliament.

Harper wants medical schools to begin graduating more doctors, which many are now starting to do. He also suggested this would be his government's second priority, after looking first into wait times. Medical schools too are a provincial matter, however, and many provinces regulate the numbers closely because having too many doctors can have the effect of driving up health costs and the harsh reality of political choice is that many new doctors graduate, take their internships in large hospitals and end up staying in the big cities, where there can often be too many doctors. —RS
8:28 p.m. EST

Paul Martin might have expected a little polite applause from his much vaunted promise to get rid of handguns from the streets of Canada. But all he gets is criticism and skepticism from the other political leaders who are sharing the election debate platform.

Jack Layton chops his hand towards the Liberal leader and asks why is he now talking about a ban on handguns � now that it's election time? Instead, why was there not more enforcement, why was there such growth in Canada's troubled communities? Similar skepticism comes from Stephen Harper who points out that Canada has had a ban on handguns for 70 years. Unkindly Harper, like Gilles Duceppe, reminds Martin of the $2 billion that has been gobbled up by the Liberals long gun registry � the gun registry that was supposed to cost $2 million.

The four leaders at least manage to agree that poverty is part of the problem of crime. Less poverty, they say, and the result will be less crime.
8:22 p.m. EST

Duceppe's English seems a little more laboured than it was in the 2004 debate. There's more at stake for him tonight than is usual in the English debate, given that he wants to attract the anglophone and allophone vote in Quebec, not just his traditional francophone base, in his quest to top 50 per cent of the popular vote in the province. —CR
8:18 p.m. EST

Very pointed question about same-sex marriage. Harper's position was his usual "let Parliament decide" approach, and he reiterated his statement from last night that he would not invoke the notwithstanding clause. On Radio station CKNW today in Vancouver Harper said "I wouldn't accept the view that you have to use the notwithstanding clause to have a traditional definition of marriage." This seems to indicate that he has a plan to overturn the same-sex law without using the dreaded clause, but it is unclear how he would do that. Layton seems reluctant to criticize Harper's position on this issue. He twice lumped the Liberals and Conservatives together as being responsible for the fact that this issue is still alive. It will be interesting to watch if this is a trend that will continue through the evening. —IB
8:16 p.m. EST

Martin�s showing a little hostility, addressing Harper directly and pointedly as he answers a question on same-sex rights. Interesting. Harper was painted as the angry man in the last session of Parliament. Why are the Liberal advisers who did a lot of that painting allowing their own leader to dabble in the deplored emotion at such a crucial event?
8:15 p.m. EST

In some respects, this wrangling over same sex marriage and whether Harper would be forced to use the notwithstanding clause to get around the law as it stands is something of a phoney war. What Harper seems to be after is a symbolic political battle that would pit the voice of Parliament against that of the Supreme Court. All he is promising is to bring the gay marriage law back to Parliament for another, free vote. If - and that's a big if - he can convince both the Commons and the Liberal-dominated Senate to support a reversal to the traditional view of marriage then he can hold this up to the courts as the will of the country's elected representatives.

It's a long-shot ploy and the real problem with it is that it will not change the law in the eight provinces and territories where courts have ruled gay marriage legal. It may, however, embolden provincial legislatures there to use the nothwithstanding clause in provincial jurisdictions.
8:06 p.m. EST

The first theme is social policy. Same-sex rights.
8:05 p.m. EST

Subdued tone to the opening statements. Only the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe hits out sharply at the Liberals for lacking the "moral authority" to govern, a theme from the Gomery report that he tried on the night before in the French language debate. One odd twist to the leaders' opening remarks. NDP Leader Jack Layton tries on a phrase that former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning used to use over and over again when he suggested "a different way of doing politics" in Ottawa. This is followed by a similar rhetorical switch: Stephen Harper says only his Conservatives have the policies to represent "ordinary working people," the NDP's well-worn slogan, in Parliament. —RS
8:04 p.m. EST

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe focuses on the Gomery Inquiry in his opening statement. The NDP's Jack Layton talks about health care.
8:03 p.m. EST

After thanking the moderator, Paul Martin's opening line is "Our economy is strong." Shades of Trudeau's campaign theme in 1972: "The land is strong." Is Martin skipping a couple of less popular Liberal leaders to evoke the spirit of an earlier political era? If so, he might want to remember that the 1972 campaign was not a very successful one for the Liberals. —CR
8:01 p.m. EST

Trina McQueen sets the ground rules: the leaders will answer taped questions from voters across the country. The television networks that organized the debate picked the questions that the leaders will answer. Those questions were not given to the leaders in advance.

Liberal Leader Paul Martin gives the first opening statement.
7:59 p.m. EST

TV executives have long asserted that audiences today have short attention spans. This might be some proof of that. In North America's first televised political debate, the Kennedy-Nixon debate in the 1960 U.S. presidential election campaign, each candidate was given eight minutes for his opening statement. Tonight, each leader will have one minute.
7:09 p.m. EST

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Liberal Leader Paul Martin and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe are preparing to square off for the first of two English-language debates at 8:00 p.m. EST. Like last night's French-language debate, this debate is taking place in Vancouver.

The moderator is former journalist and broadcast executive Trina McQueen.

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