Conservative Leader Stephen Harper defended himself against the barbs of the four other federal party leaders as they faced off Wednesday evening in the French-language debate.
With the U.S. financial crisis top of mind, the first portion of the two-hour session focused on the economy.
Harper was quick to downplay the potential effects the economic turmoil south of the border might have on Canada.
"Canada is not the United States," he said, adding the country's economic fundamentals are strong and jobs are still being created.
In a jab at the Liberals' proposed carbon tax, Harper said the last thing needed at this time of financial uncertainty is a new tax system.
Liberals unveil economic plan
"Economic risk? You are the danger," Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion shot back from across the oval table where the leaders were seated.
The seating arrangement was a departure from previous years when leaders spoke from podiums, and its informal atmosphere helped keep the leaders from shouting over one another.
With the debate focusing largely on the economy, Dion took the opportunity early on to announce that if the Liberals win the Oct. 14 federal election, they will act quickly on the economy.
In their first month, Dion vowed that the Liberals would ask Canada's financial regulatory agencies to evaluate the financial situation, convene a meeting of major economists to report on the state of the world economy, and issue a fiscal update.
He said he would also call a first ministers' meeting to talk about how the federal, provincial and territorial governments could work together to figure out how to stimulate the economy.
May scores points despite clumsy French
Green party Leader Elizabeth May's debut in the debate saw her struggle in French. But despite using a simple vocabulary and short sentences, she landed a few verbal jabs at Harper throughout the night.
"In the opinion of the economists worldwide and in an OECD report, the statements are clear — Mr. Harper's policies are threatening Canada's economy with the decisions he's made to favour the oil sector," May said.
The debates come amid worldwide market upheaval as the U.S. struggles to help Wall Street banks and investment houses deal with distressed debt.
In the midst of the debate, news broke that an amended $700-billion bailout package rejected by U.S. lawmakers earlier in the week was passed by the U.S. Senate. It still has to go to the House of Representatives for approval.
Opening and closing statements were dropped to dedicate the first half-hour to economic issues. The adjustment was made by the broadcast consortium organizing the debates after a request Tuesday from Harper, with the support of the other leaders.
The debate took on a wide range of topics, including the deadly listeriosis outbreak, the military mission in Afghanistan, leadership, gun control and the environment.
Bloc compares Harper to Bush
|What the leaders said about each other:|
One of the more interesting questions posed by viewers was the request to have each leader say something positive about the leader sitting to their left. All five managed to promote their cause in the process.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe praised May's environmental concerns but added that his party's environmental platform is the best.
NDP Leader Jack Layton called Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion "an honest man" and, perhaps hinting at a coalition, added, "We can work together."
Stephen Harper said despite their differences in philosophy, Layton is "honest" and noted the NDP agreed with the Tories on the apology for aboriginal residential schools and the Accountability Act.
Dion said when Duceppe is at his best he has "a sense of statesmanship," although he added that he lacks ambition and the country needs a government that will "work for all Canadians."
Green Leader Elizabeth May also started on a personal tone, saying of Harper, "You're a good father; your kids are lovely." But she warned Harper that his "principles take us in a dangerous direction. Your leadership is more autocratic."
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe repeatedly compared the Conservatives to the unpopular administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
"Mr. Harper is a laissez-faire-ist like Mr. Bush and we see the disaster happening in the United States now," said Duceppe.
He also accused Harper of giving tax breaks on corporate profits that benefit Canada's booming oil industry but doing little to help manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec.
NDP Leader Jack Layton also pointed to troubles in the U.S. and said the Harper government is going in the wrong direction with tax cuts for big oil companies and banks.
Duceppe also pointed to culture, calling it a "significant economic driver." It's a sensitive issue in his home province where artists have been vocal against the Tory government's cuts of up to $45 million in arts and culture funding across the country.
"There's 314,000 jobs in Quebec that depend on culture and arts. It's not all spoiled children like you say," said Duceppe, referring to a comment by Harper last week about arts cuts being a "niche issue."
Harper said last Tuesday that he doesn't think it resonates with "ordinary working people" when they "come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people … at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know those subsidies have actually gone up."
Dion shot back: "For us Quebecers and francophones all across the country, culture is what really makes our language live. The current government is not just cutting but really is working against artists."
Harper calmly reiterated his party's stance, saying his government increased the budget for culture and arts by eight per cent.
'Not talking about scuffles': Harper
Harper's tough-on-crime approach also came under fierce opposition, with May accusing him of fear-mongering with his campaign pledge to introduce tougher sentences for young people 14 and over found guilty of serious crimes.
"You are trying to create the impression of a youth crime crisis but that's not true," she said.
Dion said the Conservatives are trying to import an unsuccessful American approach that would do little to ease crime rates.
Harper dismissed suggestions that his proposal would result in youths incarcerated in adult prisons, saying the types of crimes it would target would only be the most serious.
"We're not talking about scuffles in the school, we're talking about extremely violent cases," said Harper.
He added that the Tories have also pledged about $50 million for prevention programs for youth at risk.
May said it was "quite ironic" Harper talked about crime and "yet he himself ignored legislation" on the Kyoto Protocol, fixed-date elections and the Atlantic Accord.
"He decides which legislation he likes and which he doesn't like. And that's not a good example."
Accuses Harper of fraud on the environment
She also accused Harper of defrauding Canadians with the Tory government's approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"Your plan is a type of fraud — I don't know how to say it in French," May said, only to learn from the moderator that the word is essentially the same in both languages.
Harper responded by blaming the previous Liberal government for increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent.
"We've set targets — hard targets — of 20 per cent [reductions] by 2020. That's one of the most aggressive plans in the world," he said.
"I meet people, the leaders of countries around the world, that recognize this."
May could no longer contain herself. "Give me a break," she bellowed in English. "That's ridiculous. I'm sorry, that's a joke."
On Thursday, the five leaders will face off in the English-language debate, starting at 9 p.m. ET.
The Conservative government did not cut up to $45 million in arts and culture funding in Quebec, as originally reported. The $45 million in cuts were made across the country.Oct 01, 2008 10:06 PM ET