The notwithstanding clause, Meech Lake, softwood lumber, fiscal imbalance. A long tirade about what went on in the 1995 referendum. This has not been the most scintillating public debate. Quebecers might revel in a little joie de vivre but tonight all they get are tired accusations.
Harper almost rescues the summing up. Speaking directly and almost quietly to the camera he makes a straight pitch for real power. Maybe he feels the surge in the polls, some have him leading the Liberals even in Quebec. "I offer you power and pride," he tells Quebecers. Please vote for me. It's the first heartfelt plea anyone seems to have made all night. Harper was smacked down in the last election for appearing to reach too heartily for the brass ring.
Tonight, viewers might simply be thankful that someone is actually talking directly to them, even for a moment. Instead of slanging away at each other.
10:08 p.m. EST
Harper gets the prize for the grabbiest summing up, after recapping his priorities. �On Jan. 23, I offer you power and pride.� Nice. Memorable. Possibly even marginally effective, if Quebec really is poised to give Conservatives another chance, 12 years after Mulroney�s reviled team left the stage. Too bad he followed it up with �Stand up for Canada,� his party�s election slogan, which is unlikely to resonate with a province that for the most part thinks Canada can stand up for itself. Harper knows that too. There�s a reason why the Conservatives used �Stand up for Canada� on their English signs, while the French campaign slogan has been �Changeons pour vrai,� or �Let�s change for real.�
Layton doesn�t break any new ground in his closing statement. The Liberals have offered �empty promises� that are �invariably broken.� The Conservatives put forward �simplistic solutions to complex problems.� And unlike the NDP, the Bloc has never obtained $1 million of investment for Quebecers. He asks Quebec to give him more MPs.
Duceppe aims arrows at both the Liberals and Conservatives for past transgressions against Quebecers� trust and tax dollars, and says people from Alberta and Ontario cannot represent the province. �Federalist parties are capable of doing terrible things when our future is at stake,� he warns darkly. �Only Quebecers can stand up for what we want.�
Martin goes on to warn Quebecers that their vote on Jan. 23 will affect their day-to-day lives - on taxes, day care and many other matters. He says people in Quebec will be isolated on the big decisions unless they send Liberals to Ottawa. An oddly passionless pitch, to wrap up an oddly passionless debate.
10:05 p.m. EST
Here's what we learned about the solution to the fiscal imbalance issue. Martin is going to set up a committee. Harper is interested in the Seguin Report. Layton is going to reveal all tomorrow. Duceppe wants more money. It is probably too late in this debate to raise this important question. Perhaps the marijuana issue would have worked better here. Harper does raise René Lévesque's name again. The moderator asks Duceppe whether the solution to the fiscal imbalance question would mean the end of sovereignty. Hard to tell. But for several reasons, what a great day it will be in this country when this exciting and important issue is finally off the table.
9:57 p.m. EST
Oops. It looked like a good idea Monday night when he sprung the idea of eliminating Ottawa's recourse to the notwithstanding clause on an unsuspecting public. Martin portrayed himself as the defender of basic rights. Why give Parliament the chance--the real implication: why give a Conservative Parliament the chance--to override Supreme Court decisions on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. But in the cool light of the next day, with his opponents given a comeback in tonight's French language debate, the idea loses some of its sheen.
Martin asks: should Parliament have the power to override a decision giving women the right to choose what happens with their own bodies?
But what if we get a conservative court decision, Layton asks, one that takes away rights. What if a court denies women the right to a safe abortion. Or rules that publicly-run medicare is an outdated concept. Shouldn't Parliament have a voice, a powerful voice if it chooses to override that type of judgment.
Harper, the perceived bogeyman in this, reiterated his pledge not to introduce any law that limits the right to abortion. He has also said on several occasions that he will not resort to the Charter's notwithstanding clause to undo the same-sex marriage law.
Martin decides discretion is better than a fight on this one. He moves the debate to a different topic, suggesting Harper would like to enshrine property rights in the Constitution. He might. But that kind of change would involve all the provinces in the kind of constitutional ramble that no one has the stomach for anymore.
Since the days when nationalist Quebec leaders first staked out their turf and challenged the rest of the country, English Canadians have had a hard time getting a solid footing. So it is again with Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Québécois leader who has spent most of the election debates toying with his opponents.
With an unmistakably superior shrug, Duceppe explains that he and his colleagues in the Bloc are not blindly partisan the way the Conservatives and the New Democrats are. Instead, the Bloc just defends what Quebec wants, without making the kind of compromises the others make to satisfy Ontario on this, and Alberta on that.
As if to prove his point Harper and Martin and Layton all set out to explain why they think their policies are just what Quebec wants and needs. They throw it all together, a role for Quebec on the world stage, fiscal imbalance in Quebec and everywhere else, tax cuts for big business, what you say inside Quebec and what you say outside, day care or not day care.
It is supposed to be a discussion of what party best defends Quebec's interests but at the end of 10 minutes it is not clear that Quebec has a more solid place in the federation than when the evening began. But perhaps that was what the evening was all about.
9:55 p.m. EST
Deep breath. Within minutes this ordeal will be over. The closing statements are about to begin, putting the last hour of this exercise out of its misery. Maybe those tuning in for the first time in the campaign have been riveted, but moments of passion and drama have been few and far between in this fourth of four artificial jousts. �I can only repeat my main point,� Harper said a few minutes ago, summing up yet again, for what seems like the 50th time, how he feels about the alleged fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. It�s a sentence that could stand as a motto for the last five weeks, unfortunately.
9:46 p.m. EST
A clear sign that we are in the home stretch of the fourth debate occurs when the moderator serves up a hanging curveball and no one seems to have sufficient energy to hit it out of the park. She asks whether federalist parties are to blame for the success of the Bloc. There was a time when this would have provoked the full catalogue of Liberal sleaze. Now, even Duceppe can't get excited by the question.
Harper has to remind him that last night Duceppe acknowledged that the Bloc's rise was due to Liberal corruption. A brief discussion ensues about the difference between the words "peuple" and "nation" in the mind of Paul Martin.
Duceppe gets off a good line when he says it is okay for your neighbour to paint your fence, but not your bedroom. It's almost over.
9:44 p.m. EST
Duceppe has just called the Liberal leader �Mr. Chrétien,� before quickly defending himself on the ground that Martin and Jean Chrétien look so much alike. Badoom-chick. Two for the price of one. That�s possibly the worst thing you could say to insult both those mortal enemies.
9:36 p.m. EST
The closest to a John Wayne moment tonight. The subject is Canada-U.S. relations and Martin has just accused Harper of going on American TV to insult Canadians (that was almost three years ago by the way) and say Canada was wrong not to go along with the Iraq war. Harper can be seen chomping at the bit and when his turn comes he turns directly to Martin and says sternly it is not the role of the Canadian prime minister "to insult Americans on their TV and you failed" the job.
Alas, from there the debate degenerated into a rather arcane discussion of who was in favour of offering loan guarantees to Canadian softwood lumber producers so they could better withstand the ongoing trade war. Harper and Duceppe both blamed Martin for not going along with the opposition calls for loan guarantees. It may well be a good idea but the strategy for taking on the U.S. in this trade war is not being directed solely out of the nation's capital: all major lumber producers and provincial governments are heavily involved as well.
Martin says it's his job to "tell the truth to the Americans," and also that relations between the two countries are excellent. That might be news in Washington where, just weeks ago, they called Canada's ambassador on the carpet and asked him to help tone down the cross-border rhetoric. Martin's on rather weak ground here. He came to the prime minister's job promising to repair damaged relations with the Bush administration following the slurs of the last of the Chrétien years. The repair job looks to be something for another day
9:34 p.m. EST
Pen alert! Pen alert! Quick: Who had 9:34 p.m. EST in their office politics wonk pool? At least once in every one of these four debates, Martin has started waving around his royal blue pen. Makes him look like a professor -- or maybe a bean counter. Maybe it�s a subliminal message reminding us that he and he alone slayed the deficit dragon back in the mid-1990s. �I and this powerful pen of mine...�
Duceppe says the federalist state has no business in the bedrooms of the Quebec nation. But only metaphorically at the moment. He�s comparing Quebec and the rest of Canada to neighbours who can have amiable discussions about landscaping on the border line of their property, but �but what's not fair is when the neighbour comes in and paints your own bedroom.� Me, I wouldn�t mind if the neighbour is paying for it, and doing all the work, as long as I could pick out the colour...
9:27 p.m. EST
There's nothing like the big oil companies to get Canadian politicians twitchy. Mind you, Jack Layton does not like to be reminded that one of his candidates wants to nationalize the big oil companies. That is going a bit far for a comfortably squishy New Democrat; taxing is one thing, but nationalizing, no, not today.
Still Layton and Gilles Duceppe are fast to support public transit and stop tax gifts to the oil companies. That's where the line gets drawn in the debate, at least on that subject. Paul Martin and Stephen Harper are not going to get into any rough talk about the oil companies. Instead they agree on Martin's soft promise of "other options" to settle Canada's energy problems.
Harper is on the defensive over his plan to roll back the personal income tax cut introduced by the Liberals in November. The campaign's odd pas de deux over taxes continues.
Martin, who originally opposed the GST, now comes to its defence, while the leader of the party that introduced the reviled tax now trashes it.
Duceppe raises an intriguing question that brings together two potentially snore-inducing issues: taxation and the fiscal imbalance.
Duceppe claims the cut in the GST will cost Quebec $200 million in lost revenues. How will that help solve the fiscal imbalance?
The question is left hanging. The fact is (as Paul Martin might say) that the Conservative tax cut plan is far more generous than that of the Liberals. The Conservatives are promising $58.4 billion in tax cuts over five years while the Liberal tax cut currently stands at $33.4.
Good one from Martin, when asked about his recently troubled relations with the United States. �I went on American television and told them that they were wrong when it came to the issue of softwood lumber," he says. "Mr. Harper went on American television to say that Canadians were wrong when they did not take part in the war on Iraq. ... A prime minister�s role is not to put down his country in front of the neighbours.� Harper manages a good parry and segue: �It�s the prime minister�s role to defend Canada�s interests, and you failed.� Then he goes on to count the ways.
Harper�s playing the Invisible Game with Layton. Layton just launched a passionate set of questions at the Conservative leader about his tax promises. The camera shows Harper looking dead ahead, and occasionally down at his briefing papers. When Layton is done, Harper starts to speak... about Paul Martin. If a barrage of NDP words falls in a French-language debate forest and nobody believes the party�s a factor in Quebec, do those words still make a sound?
At current rates, deaths will exceed births in Canada in about 20 to 25 years. At that point immigration will count for all the country's population growth. It's a big load to put on their shoulders and a couple of recent studies have suggested they are being ground down under the weight of it. Immigrants, especially those with professional skills from their own countries, are not doing as well as native-born Canadians when it comes to holding their own in this economy. And when it comes to child poverty, immigrant children are suddenly a noticeably high component.
So what to do? Harper and Martin both would like to see new accreditation procedures, particularly for doctors and health-care workers coming from abroad so they can work more easily in Canada. Good ideas. But the problem, as Duceppe points out, is that accreditation and residency rules in hospitals are all provincial responsibilities.
Both Harper and Martin are promising to eliminate the landed immigrant fee--$975 per individual--over the next few years as a signal Canada's doors are open. (It wasn't that long ago, mind you, that Liberal finance minister Paul Martin imposed the large fee in the first place.) A bigger problem though may be the long wait times prospective immigrants undergo trying to get into Canada. The Auditor General recently reported that the average processing time for even the cherished economic class applicants can be as high as four years for prospective immigrants from China, Hong Kong and India.
In the excitement of the moment Paul Martin is selective in forgetting a bit of history. Taunted by Jack Layton about why he did not reveal the names of those who contributed to his Liberal leadership campaign, Martin says with an injured grimace that he revealed all of them.
Well, yes and no. In his 2003 leadership campaign, Martin revealed all the names of all the loyalists who contributed more than $12 million to make him party leader. What he did not admit was that he named none of the people who contributed to his 1990 leadership campaign.
9:06 p.m. EST
The question is about decriminalization of marijuana, and the response of Jack Layton is eagerly anticipated. After all, in 2004, the Canadian Marijuana Party considering merging with the NDP. That was after Jack Layton appeared on Pot-TV with Marc Emery, publisher of Cannabis Culture, and said that marijuana was a "wonderful" substance and should be enjoyed in a "legal environment."
But tonight, Layton takes a harder line. He repeats the NDP's policy that pot should be fully decriminalized but says we also need to control for age and quantity, and worry about driving while under the influence. Despite his comments to Mr. Emery, Layton no longer talks about creating a "legal environment" for marijuana. Would this debate be more interesting if these four guys were passing a joint around? Maybe next campaign.
What�s this? �I was threatened by the Hells Angels during the last campaign,� Gilles Duceppe has just said. Where did that come from? A quick search of Google comes up with no hits. Is Google failing me, or did Duceppe decide to keep such a threat secret until now? If so, why blurt it out in the middle of a national leaders' debate? A sympathy ploy? Surely not... Ah, a further search reveals stories about threats from the 2000 election campaign. The Hells Angels biker gang was not specifically named, though Duceppe's call for a crackdown on bikers was mentioned in the same breath.
9:02 p.m. EST
Assisted suicide. Would you personally help someone very sick to die, if that is what they wanted? Only Martin answers the question directly. It's a very hard thing, he acknowledges. "I couldn't do it."
The others probably couldn't either. But they confined themselves to noting that they would allow for a free vote in Parliament. Duceppe says he is very proud that a Bloc MP, Francine Lalonde, has brought a private members bill forward to address the issue. It passed second reading and will have to be reintroduced in a new Parliament. Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said at the time the government would like to see a debate on the issue, but one that would be more fact-finding than intending to resolve anything.
No one mentioned the Latimer case, in which a father performing a mercy killing on his severely disabled daughter, went all the way to the Supreme Court. It did not accept the mercy killing defence.
Layton didn't mention his embattled MP Svend Robinson either. Robinson helped publicize the case of Sue Rodriguez, a severely disabled women with Lou Gehrig's disease who eventually took her own life. Her dignity impressed parliamentarians when she appeared before them. As well as the Supreme Court. But it also would not give legal sanction to her request for medical assistance to die.
In other times it might have ended up as an angry debate about crime and punishment � how do you deal with the problem of illegal arms and the people who use them?
It's Gilles Duceppe who steers the debate to the problems of those who get those guns and use them. Poverty and exclusion, he says, must be faced. Paul Martin who has heard about guns in recent weeks, took his cue from Duceppe and says that after the problem of stopping the smuggling of guns, "it's about helping people who have no hope, who have no future."
Not to be drawn into such a soft area, Stephen Harper insists there must be minimum sentences for serious violent crimes and repeat offenders and there must be more supervision at the borders.
On this one, Harper was alone. Layton and Duceppe returned to the need for social housing more than hard laws. But the Duceppe-Layton alliance breaks down when Duceppe shrugged off Layton's reminders of social legislation from the NDP that the Bloc did not support. Glaring at Duceppe, Layton says evenly that on the matter of help for the unemployed, "We don't have anything to learn from you on this issue."
Question on violence and gun control. As well as getting tougher on criminals, Duceppe says work has to be done to fight poverty and social exclusion, so that young people don�t turn to crime. Martin also mentions poverty, exclusion and �lack of hope.� Interesting that Harper is not ridiculing the �social exclusion� phrase, as he did after the Boxing Day shooting of Jane Creba in Toronto. He blasted people who called the shooters �victims of social exclusion, even as they were last seen leaving the scene in a BMW.�
Why are we so afraid of two-tier medicine when it works in other countries? Another Quebec question of course, this from the province where the Supreme Court of Canada last year opened the door to private medical insurance. Martin rises to the defence of the public system. That's why Ottawa invested $41 million with the provinces to try to fix medicare for a generation. What he doesn't say is that the federal contribution, while significant, follows nearly a decade of cuts, and is not projected to rise as quickly as health costs are.
Layton uses the moment to drag pharmacare and home care plans into the debate. These are the forgotten promises of the 2004 campaign, and given that pharmacare alone is pegged to cost, at a minimum $1.5-billion a year--some say it could be a $10 to $12-billion a year program ultimately--it's hard to see how the parties can afford them this time out.
To get around his bogeyman image, Harper promises clearly, again, to maintain a universal medicare system--and to provide equality in "essential medical services."
These may be words that are very carefully chosen.
All those nice suits were hardly in place before the mud starts flying like confetti in a hurricane. The target of the mud was mainly Paul Martin � what he did to fight separatism in Quebec and what someone did or did not do about insider knowledge of income trusts. Martin kept protesting that he followed the rules, did what he was supposed to do, didn't know anything before anyone else. As he dodged the mud Martin did not appear to be a happy man. Plucky, but not happy.
After Jack Layton had flayed Martin about the income trusts, Harper wants to know exactly how many police investigations are actually underway in Ottawa these days. Then Gilles Duceppe reminds Martin that the Bloc Québécois asked a total of 89 questions about the Option Canada scandal and got no answer for their efforts.
Duceppe is particularly fond of the Option Canada scandal because he loves to recite the number of Conservatives who were involved in the whole Canadian unity operation. So it was not just a Liberal scandal, he says, it was a federal scandal - meaning that the whole country is rotten.
Things are not starting well this evening for the cause of federalism.
Layton is asked a question about why he propped up the Liberal government in the spring. After some heated exchanges in the first three questions, this produces a fairly tepid response all around. Harper and Martin both go after Duceppe, knowing he may hold the balance of power in the next Parliament. The name of Saint René Lévesque is evoked for the second time tonight. Harper conjured up his name earlier. This time it was Duceppe. Look for more. Is Lévesque the Ed Broadbent of French Canada? Harper urges voters to vote for his Conservative candidates, whom he calls "real Quebecers". And the other candidates....?
This is totally frivolous, but does anybody else out there think Stephen Harper looks better when he�s speaking in French? The mouth motions take more effort, and he can�t manage to speak his second language AND keep that artificial-looking grin planted on his face. The result seems more natural, more concerned-looking. Until he remembers at the end of a sentence that he hasn�t smiled in, oh, 10 seconds. Then it pops up like a ghastly punctuation mark.
8:33 p.m. EST
Duceppe's turn to be on the defensive? Actually it turns out to be a softball. Where would the Bloc be today in a scandal-free Ottawa?
Duceppe does his best René Lévesque shrug and points out that most people called the Bloc a one-year wonder after the failure of Meech Lake and here he is fighting his fifth election since then. (And doing pretty well in the polls.) Must be doing something right.
The others also treat this as a freebie, a chance to recite their promises to Quebec. Harper notes his own rise in the opinion polls of late. (He's not counting his chickens yet surely.) And goes on to talk of how he will bring an accountable government to Ottawa. Only Martin tries to get a fight going here. He charges Duceppe with talking a good game about working for Quebec but in the end is only working towards separation.
Martin to Layton, after a question implying he has never revealed who funded his Liberal leadership campaign: �You shouldn�t come here to this debate and tell such lies... This is a debate that�s too important for the people of Canada to sling mud like that. Tell the truth.� Why say something once when you�ve got 30 seconds to say it three or four times?
Too bad the cameras can�t quickly pan away when Martin says earnestly: �My government follows the rules.� Seems like a perfect opportunity for some good body language on the part of the other leaders, given their usual litany of accusations against the Liberals. There would be rolling of eyes, raising of eyebrows, bouts of pretend choking, knee slapping and belly holding, at the very least.
8:22 p.m. EST
The first question is almost a carbon copy of a question asked to Harper last night, except in the English debate he was asked to defend the Reform Party record, and tonight he had to address the Conservative Party's past. Ah, the perils of leading a merged party.
Perhaps the best indication of how the dynamics of this campaign has changed lies in the fact that in a question about corruption, scandal and accountability, Stephen Harper is given a rougher ride than Paul Martin. Duceppe needs to pin the Option Canada "scandal" on the Conservative Party as well as the Liberals since a growing number of people seem to be looking to the Conservatives rather than the Bloc as a protest vote. But to try to link Stephen Harper of 2006 with the old Mulroney Quebec Conservative crowd of the 1980s and 90s is a stretch worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Layton attacks Harper on the subject raised last night: namely the donors to Harper's 2002 leadership campaign. It is going to be a long night for Stephen Harper. Ah the perils of being the front-runner.
8:19 p.m. EST
Martin's opening statement is almost a race against the clock. He offers his take on the Conservative platform: no day-care money for Quebec's system, abandoning Kyoto, would have gone to war in Iraq (Martin says). While he supported Meech Lake and believes in the Distinct Society.
Talk about a catechism. Thank goodness Harper is only interested in promising what he says is to govern openly and fairly, and not for the "friends of the (ancient?) regime."
Here we go again. Debate four and right out of the block, the four leaders get their digs in. This time, the debate being in French, there is an obvious Quebec flair.
Gilles Duceppe observes that the latest so-called scandal, the one dealing with a pro-Canada group set up by Ottawa to fight the 1995 referendum, broke René Lévesque's referendum-governing law and involved both high-ranking Liberals AND Conservative organizers. The dig here is at the Canadian Unity Council, a blue-chip supposedly non-partisan group that has included such notable Conservatives as Senator Michael Meighen, Peter White, Paul Tellier, as well as former NDP premier Bob Rae. Which is probably why Duceppe repeatedly referred to the Option Canada affair as a �federal� scandal, rather than a Liberal scandal, trying to tar all federalist parties with this brush.
What�s the fuss about Option Canada? Why is a soon-to-be-published book about an obscure $5 million federal program that ended ten years ago causing such a stir on the campaign trail?
It is one of the central myths of the separatist cause that the 1995 referendum was �stolen�. This idea was first articulated by Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau on referendum night when he pointed the finger at the two most likely perpetrators of the crime, �money and the ethnic vote.� Separatists don�t talk that way about �ethnics� anymore. Which leaves money as the principle reason why the separatist dream fell short by just 54,288 votes.
Once again, Stephen Harper is the only leader with a discreet handkerchief poking out of his suit�s breast pocket. It�s silky and expensive-looking. What�s with that? Who�s it meant to speak to? The mothers who encourage their children to always be ready to blow their noses politely? The people who believe a real man should be allowed to cry? Or merely the haberdashery industry?
Woo hoo! Paul Martin goes wild and crazy with a light blue shirt! No white for him tonight. Maybe he figures that could be interpreted as a sign of surrender.
8:01 p.m. EST
As they stand there in their neat dark suits and brief plastic smiles, there is a flicker of sympathy. In spite of their scripted jocularity they look so weary, and there�s still almost two weeks to go. They have been on this election trail for six weeks - or is it seven? - and now the fourth of four debates. And that�s not counting the years they have been at it, waiting for a night like tonight.
Does it never occur to them that there is nothing new to say - nothing that has not been said a thousand times in the House of Commons, or at one of 387 rubber chicken dinners, or in a Knights of Columbus Hall in a town of 14,000 that can be reached only by an uncertain bus, or in school gymnasiums anywhere. Health care, crime, Gomery, sovereignty, accountability, deficit, pensions, murder, debt, horsefeathers.
Or, pity their poor wives, when they say it all in bed. "And I say to you my dear, this country is too fine for the choices that have been thrust upon us. Our people are too noble for the neglect that they have been forced to share. God, I�ve done it again. Sorry, my dear. Say hello to the children for me. And I say to you, darling, with all the conviction that this fine country deserves, don�t forget to vote."
Even a turtle would be bored, but these guys have to look keen and eager. Put me in, coach, put me in. Let me at them. Let the debate begin. It will all be over on Jan. 23.
8 p.m. EST
The format is 30 minutes on each of four themes, selected by the debate producers from a roster of six.
The four themes are national unity, the economy, social policy and ethics and government.
The leaders have one minute to respond, after which each leader has a minute to react. The person who originally asked the question has 30 seconds to rebut.
The moderator has three minutes during the discussion to intervene, followed by another three minutes at the end of each subject for followup questions.
There is opportunity for more interaction between the leaders. The debate will allow rebuttals at the moderator's discretion.