The broadcasting consortium staging this week's leaders' debates agreed Tuesday to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's request for extra time to be devoted to the economy.
Harper formally asked the television networks to extend the segments on the economy from 12 minutes to a full hour, saying the financial crisis affecting the U.S. "has deepened since the debate format was finalized.
"The economy is, understandably, top of mind for most Canadians," Harper said. "Unfortunately, the current debate format does not devote sufficient time to the economy, the most important issue facing Canada today."
The consortium did not specify how much time would focus on the economy. To accommodate the request, it said it will eliminate leaders' opening and closing statements.
"In addition, the moderators will take advantage of the flexibility built into the debate format to allow for more time to be devoted to this important issue," the consortium said in a release.
The proposed change required the agreement of all the parties. The New Democrats immediately said they supported Harper's call.
Harper rejected call for special meeting
NDP spokesman Brad Lavigne told CBC News that there's no better time to debate what each party is proposing on the economy while Canadian families are increasingly anxious about their own jobs during the crisis.
Green Leader Elizabeth May also advocated for the change, saying it would expose Harper on an issue "in which he truly is an emperor without clothes."
On Monday, Harper rebuffed calls from NDP Leader Jack Layton for a special meeting for federal party leaders to discuss the potential effects of the U.S economic crisis on Canadians.
Layton's call came shortly after financial markets, including Toronto's, took a nosedive Monday in the wake of the U.S. House of Representatives voting down a $700-billion US bill to bail out America's financial industry.
Other change to debate
In another departure from the standard debate procedure, the leaders will sit at a round table rather than speak from the podium.
The Wednesday and Thursday debates offer Canadians a closer look at the five federal leaders before the last stretch of the five-week campaign.
While it will mark Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's and May's first time participating in the leaders' debates, the three other leaders — Harper, Layton and Bloc Québécois' Gilles Duceppe — are veterans.
Thursday's English-language debate will have to vie for the attention of Canadian voters who may be tempted to tune into the U.S. vice-presidential debate scheduled for the same night, marking the first time Republican Sarah Palin and Democratic Joe Biden face off.
But political expert Henry Jacek predicts voters will be drawn to the Ottawa debates simply because their outcomes will affect them more.
The addition of May is likely to trigger additional interest, along with the recent surge in support for the NDP, which has increased the pressure on Dion.
"What is probably open at this point is who do [voters] want to support as an alternative to Harper, and that is really sort of the burning question in Canada today," said Jacek, a McMaster University political scientist.
Debate date set by consortium
The consortium — consisting of Canada's largest English and French TV networks including CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and TVA — set the dates for the Canadian debates.
Consortium spokesman Jason MacDonald said Oct. 1 and 2 were chosen for the French and English debates respectively, because the dates best accommodated the leaders' schedules.
"It's a relatively short campaign to begin with," said MacDonald. "Once you've got [the debate date] set, it's very difficult to change."
The French-language debate will be televised live on Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. ET, followed by the English debate on Thursday from 9 to 11 p.m. ET.
Parties spar over economic policies
Speaking in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, Dion took the opportunity to say he is welcoming the chance during the debates to tell Canadians that his party's plan is the "best approach."
Dion again accused the Harper government of having no plan to deal with the economy, while extolling the achievements of previous Liberal governments in contending with economic challenges.
"Every time there are problems, Liberals were there to strengthen the economy, to bring more stability and fairness to the country," Dion told reporters.
"We have an ultra-Conservative government in power that's using methods that have failed all over the world, and it doesn't understand the role of government in helping people."
The Liberal leader also lashed out at Layton's previous call for an all-party meeting on the crisis, saying the New Democrats' platform shows Layton "has no credibility" on the economy.
Harper has insisted the fundamentals of Canada's economy are strong and his party's approach is the most stable option for Canadians at a time of global uncertainty. He has labelled the Liberals' plan to provide income-tax cuts and a tax on carbon fuels as an "untested scheme."
Dion's Green Shift plan faced criticism on Monday from within the Liberal fold, with Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan saying it would be a "mistake" to bring in a carbon tax at a time of economic uncertainty.
Do you have a question for Stéphane Dion? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for The National's Your Turn with the Liberal party leader on Oct. 8.