Politics

Federal leaders' debate: Harper forced to defend record on economy, security

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, seeking another term in office, found himself fending off challenges to the government's performance on security, the economy and environment in the first federal leaders' debate of the campaign on Thursday.

This could be only English-language debate to feature all 4 leaders

Tom Mulcair presses Justin Trudeau on what the Liberals' deciding number would be in a referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty 1:11

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, seeking another term in office, found himself fending off challenges to the government's performance on security, the economy and environment in the first federal leaders' debate of the campaign on Thursday.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, in the first question of the night from the moderator, Maclean's political editor Paul Wells, was quick to contend Canada is in a recession, deeming it to be a risk to continue with Harper's "failed plan."

Both Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair brought up the spectre of consecutive deficits on more than one occasion.

"Honestly, Mr. Harper, we really can't afford another four years of you," Mulcair said.

With respect to security, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May charged that Harper was playing right into the hands of ISIS, drawing Canada into the region by its provocations and shocking videos of hostage killings.

Mulcair rejected the notion that his party would never engage Canada militarily, stressing it opposed the ISIS mission because it lacked a clearly defined purpose and exit strategy.

Harper defended the ISIS mission abroad and the government's Anti-Terrorism Act at home on the grounds the militant group is "slaughtering hundreds of thousands" in Iraq and Syria. "[ISIS] has singled out Canada and Canadians by name and has demonstrated abilities to carry out attacks in countries like ours," he added. 
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said most of the economy is growing, despite low oil prices that have affected the energy sector. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Trudeau focused on the aftermath of war and unrest, accusing the Conservatives of "nickel and diming" Canada's veterans when they return from deployment.

Economic record questioned

Harper, referring to the Liberal leader as Mr. Trudeau after an early campaign approach of calling him "Justin" at nearly every turn, said Canada should stay the course during challenging times with his party's policy of low tax rates.

Harper trumpeted Canada as having the strongest economic growth and job creation record in the world since the great global recession began in 2008, an argument which the other leaders disputed.

But he seemed to concede for the first time that Canada was in a recession after Mulcair brought up government data that reported five straight months of negative economic growth. "I'm not denying that," Harper replied.

Harper also defended his record on ensuring Canadians have income stability in their senior years, pointing to income splitting for pensioners.

New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair said his party wants to abolish the Senate. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

While Mulcair and Trudeau participated in their first federal election debate, May accused Harper of "cherry picking his data" and called him on statements made in a 2008 federal debate in which she participated.

"I don't think he's got a really good track record of spotting when we're in a recession," she said.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most heated exchanges of the night featured Trudeau and Montreal native Mulcair sparring on the issue of Quebec sovereignty.

Trudeau accused him of trying to undermine the Clarity Act, which mandates a clear question and clear majority in any sovereignty referendum.

Mulcair retorted that he has spent his political life fighting against separatism.

Pipeline politics

Trudeau criticized Harper for his lack of co-operation and partnerships with First Nations on environmental issues and with the provincial premiers on a host of issues.

With respect to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project that would ship Alberta oilsands crude to the U.S., Harper pointed to overwhelming support from the public and among politicians south of the border, other than the current U.S. president.

He contended that the Conservatives are the first government in Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which drew an immediate rebuke from May as being untrue.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, the only candidate to have previously faced off with Harper in a debate, blasted him for his inability to accurately assess the Canadian economy. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

May said the government had "no credibility at this point" with respect to the environment, and that it was not sound policy to export crude to countries with poor environmental records.

Mulcair, too, took Harper to task for projects that would be more beneficial to Canada's partners than domestically.

"Part of sustainable development is creating value-added jobs in your own country," he said.

Trudeau accused Mulcair of inconsistency on the issue, and in addition said that too often Harper's policies treat the economy and environment as separate issues.

Harper shot back that by opposing carbon taxes, unlike the opposition parties, he is supporting Canadians at the pumps and in their homes.

The candidates also battled during segments on the health of Canada's democratic institutions like the Senate and Supreme Court, and foreign policy and security.

Future debate questions

In his closing remarks, the Liberal leader addressed a months-long Conservative ad campaign tactic questioning his readiness to lead the country, referring to his father, Pierre Trudeau, Canada's 15th prime minister.

"What I learned from my father is that to lead this country, you need to love this country, love it more than you crave power."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau criticized Harper for too often treating the economy and the environment as separate issues. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Trudeau is the fourth Liberal Party leader Harper has faced in a federal debate since taking office, and Mulcair is the second NDP leader he has faced. May participated in the 2008 consortium debate, but was excluded three years later.

More than two months away from voting day, the NDP has a narrow lead in the polls, with the Conservatives second and the Liberals third.

While it is only five days into the longest federal campaign in modern Canadian times, this could be the only English-language debate to feature all four major party leaders.

There are expected to be four or five more debates, but the lineup card for each is still the subject of some posturing and negotiation.

Harper, prime minister since early 2006, has said he will not participate in the traditional debates organized by the broadcast consortium, of which CBC is a member. Harper has agreed to the Maclean's and TVA debates, as well as those proposed by the Globe and Mail and the Munk Debates.

Mulcair has suggested he won't attend debates in which Harper does not participate.

Voters head to the polls on Oct. 19.

Corrections

  • This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly mentioned the Munk School of Global Affairs as debate host. In fact, the event sponsor is the Munk Debates, a separate entity.
    Aug 11, 2015 2:30 PM ET

With files from The Canadian Press

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