OTTAWA — With his “bickering” rivals as live-action campaign props, Stephen Harper gave Canadians a stark warning Tuesday: Hand his Conservatives a majority government, or expect more of the same — and sooner, rather than later.
Harper stared directly into the camera as he fended off a three-pronged attack that focused on allegations of Conservative deception, dubious spending practices and secretive, conspiratorial government.
He shrugged it off, talking past his rivals to warn viewers at home about the alternative to a Tory majority.
“I hope this time — and I’m being quite frank — I hope it is a majority,” Harper said, broaching a subject he was loathe to discuss in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal campaigns.
“Otherwise, you look at the debate we’re having today, we’re going to be back into a fifth election in no time at all.”
The 2006 and ’08 elections were precipitated by Harper himself, and the latest was presaged by weeks of heavy government advertising and Conservative spending announcements.
Nonetheless, as his opponents assailed him for everything from contempt of Parliament to the looming negotiations with the provinces on health-care funding, the soaring cost of new fighter jets and criminal justice legislation, Harper blamed the opposition for triggering an unpopular election.
“What we are asking — in an election we didn’t want, in an election Canadians didn’t want — we’re asking Canadians to make the decision: Do you want to have this kind of bickering, do you want to have another election in two years? Or do you want a focus on the economy?” an unflappable Harper asked at the debate’s midpoint.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shot back: “There he goes again with this word ’bickering.’ This is a debate, Mr. Harper. This is a democracy.”
Polls suggest Ignatieff — the focus of sustained Conservative attack ads before the writ was even dropped — has yet to connect with a wide swath of disengaged Canadian voters. His debate task was to re-introduce himself as a prime minister in waiting.
But with NDP Leader Jack Layton snapping off one-line zingers at both and Ignatieff and Harper, and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois focusing mainly on the prime minister, Harper remained the debate’s focal point.
Political scientist Paul Thomas of the University of Manitoba said Harper played his role well.
“The prime minister did what he had to do, which was to remain poised and look self-assured and confident and calm. He didn’t lose his temper.”
And given public opinion polling to date, Thomas said Ignatieff, “would have liked to have had a moment where he could say, ’Well, there’s one or two moments of triumph tonight in this debate.’
“And I’m not sure they came up,” said the political scientist.
Harper was slapped from the opening exchange of the evening, when Duceppe thanked him for “answering a question from a citizen for the first time in this campaign.”
Harper has been running a classic front-runner’s campaign, with only limited, tightly scripted interactions with the public.
Layton, a seasoned veteran of televised leaders’ debates, landed blows literally left and right as he took on both Ignatieff and Harper in turns.
After ripping Ignatieff’s Liberals for supporting Harper’s minority government in a number of key votes, Layton turned to the podium on his right.
“In fact, Mr. Harper, if it hadn’t been for him supporting you all this time, I’d have to be lending you my crutch so your government could’ve stayed in power,” said the NDP leader, who recently had hip surgery.
Layton’s debate task was to ensure New Democrats aren’t squeezed out in a two-horse Conservative-Liberal race, and his performance kept Parliament’s fourth-place party on the electoral radar. That works to Harper’s advantage.
The debate consisted of six segments, each featuring two of the four leaders squaring off in a six-minute showdown after a pre-recorded question from a Canadian voter.
Each segment ended with a brief free-for-all debate involving all four leaders.
That the three opposition leaders would be focusing their fire on the prime minister was no surprise and Harper — participating in his ninth televised campaign debate as a party leader — used that focus to deliver his preferred election message.
Harper has been claiming the opposition parties will form a coalition government to unseat another Conservative minority “with lightning speed,” although Ignatieff explicitly ruled out a formal coalition on the first day of the election campaign.
The Conservative leader appeared to shift the coalition theme during the debate toward an argument on stability.
“I don’t think this kind of political bickering, personal attacks back and forth, is frankly going to do anything for Canadians,” said Harper.
Ignatieff, who appeared tight and hesitant compared with his free-flowing performances on the hustings in the first two weeks of the campaign, missed the opportunity to ask the Conservative leader why he authorized attack ads for several months in the election lead-up.
Instead, Ignatieff repeatedly made the point that Harper’s Conservatives cannot be trusted with power.
“You keep talking about Parliament as if it’s this little debating society that’s a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It’s not,” said the Liberal leader, the only rookie in the debate.
“It’s the Parliament of the people of Canada and they’ve found you in contempt.”
Harper said the election was simply opportunism, “because the other three parties saw a chance to go after the government.”
Ignatieff and Layton did battle over Afghanistan, with Layton urging an immediate end to the Canadian mission and the Liberal leader insisting it’s right for Canadian soldiers to stay and train members of the Afghan National Army.
“Are you saying (after) these brave men and women gave their lives, we walk away from Afghanistan and pretend to the Canadian people it didn’t happen? We are where we are, sir,” Ignatieff said.
“You can’t walk away and pretend it didn’t happen. It did happen.”
Layton dismissed the argument as the same one put forth by the Conservatives, and tried to portray Ignatieff as a Tory in Liberal clothing.
It was a running skirmish that carried throughout the two-hour debate.
’“Your party has a rather long history of making promises in elections and breaking them after,” Layton charged at one point.
“But Jack, at least we get into government,” Ignatieff responded. “You’d be in opposition forever.”
“There’s that sense of entitlement once again,” shot back Layton.
A Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll released Tuesday suggests voters had the highest expectations of Harper, with 37 per cent of respondents predicting the prime minister would have the strongest performance.
Only 19 per cent of respondents predicted a strong performance for Ignatieff.
As expected Harper came under fire amid fresh accusations of Conservative pork-barrel politics and dubious government spending.
Respect for democracy and transparency in public spending were at the heart of the historic non-confidence vote March 25 that found the Harper government in contempt of Parliament.
Those issues were largely ignored through the first two weeks of campaigning, but got new life from a Canadian Press story about a damning draft report by the auditor general.
The confidential Jan. 13 draft says the government misinformed Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G8 fund that lavished money on questionable projects in Industry Minister Tony Clement’s riding. And it suggests the process by which the funding was approved may have been illegal.
“You’re citing a report that the auditor general’s office said shouldn’t be relied upon,” Harper told Duceppe during the debate.
Layton suggested all four leaders sit down Wednesday and find a way to have the auditor’s final report released.
However the auditor general’s office has firmly stated it can’t release the final report until Parliament resumes. It is investigating the leaks.
The draft report says a local “G8 summit liaison and implementation team” that included Clement chose the 32 projects that received funding, and did so with no apparent regard for the needs of the summit or the conditions laid down by the government.
The report is the latest in a string of campaign controversies that have had Tories scrambling. Others include:
— Reports from the U.S. that the cost of the F-35 stealth fighter jets the government plans to buy is likely to double to about $150 million a plane.
— Vetting of guests at Conservative campaign rallies and the expulsion of those deemed undesirable.
— The revelation that Harper hired a senior adviser who had been convicted on five counts of fraud. Harper said he didn’t know about all the convictions.
Still, polls suggest the Conservative leader hasn’t suffered any tangible losses. A Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey Monday suggested the Tories were close to majority territory with 40 per cent support compared with the Liberals’ 28.
The French version of the leaders’ debate takes place Wednesday.