Opposition hoped to make this about character; Harper thinks we’re more worried about economy

It took about two minutes. A Newmarket man named Robert Bahlieda asked a pre-recorded question about corporate tax cuts,

It took about two minutes.

A Newmarket man named Robert Bahlieda asked a pre-recorded question about corporate tax cuts, Gilles Duceppe fielded the query and before the Bloc Québécois leader exhaled, he unloaded on Stephen Harper about the auditor-general’s report on G8/G20 spending.

Character had returned with a vengeance as the overriding issue in the 2011 campaign.

It was how the campaign began 17 days earlier, with Harper’s Conservative government falling on a parliamentary motion of contempt.

Questions of Harper’s ethics, accountability, secrecy and contempt for democracy have not stuck over those 2 1/2 weeks.

But on Tuesday night, when a nationally televised English debate was expected to finally engage Canadians in this campaign, Harper’s opponents were betting they would finally begin sticking now.

Like sleepless children on Christmas morning, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Duceppe raced to the podium at the Government Conference Centre to unwrap their new present, a leaked draft report from Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

It accused the Harper government of misleading Parliament on its reckless spending of $50 million throughout the Huntsville area in the run-up to a G8 summit that arguably accomplished nothing.

They were practically salivating with the news that the leaked report had delivered a significant blow to Harper’s leadership qualities, according to one overnight poll.

Ignatieff dove into the ethics pool head-first. The Liberal leader, in no particular order and with varying degrees of stridency, said Harper couldn’t tell the truth, had no respect for democracy, no respect for Parliament, no respect for Canadians.

He portrayed Harper as the type of man who just blows up things that don’t suit his fancy, a man who must be in control.

“You are a man who will shut down anything you can’t control,” Ignatieff said.

“That’s the core of your vision of government … and it’s hostile to the values of democracy upon which this country is based.”

Layton, a self-assured debater, accused Harper of running one of the most closed, secretive governments in Canadian history and stuffing people facing criminal charges in the Senate.

“I don’t know why we need more prisons when the crooks are so comfortable in the Senate,” he said.

Through it all, Harper was so implacable that he spoke directly to the camera, ignoring his tormentors, as if he was on a stage all by himself.

His inflection never wavered, he refused to be goaded, he was the least animated of the quartet by far, all but checking his watch to see when his bus would be picking him up.

Even the optics played to the gang-up with Harper at the left end of the semi-circle of lecterns, television cameras showing the Conservative leader under siege from the eager trio.

Ignatieff – in his first national debate – is wagering that a referendum on the character of Harper and the Conservative leader’s disdain for Canadian institutions will catch fire.

Harper is betting that outside the parliamentary precinct, such arguments are regarded as white noise, and that Canadians are concerned about the economy, not something that he dismisses as game-playing in the capital.

A historic vote finding him in contempt was diminished as merely three parties outvoting his government, Harper said. Canadians don’t believe the country should be focused on “parliamentary squabbling and censure motions,” the Conservative leader said.

He tried to galvanize his argument for a majority government by pointing to the “bickering” and personal attacks on display Tuesday night.

On that, Ignatieff rightly corrected him.

This was not bickering, but a debate, Ignatieff said.

With that, the essence of the Conservative leader seemed to have been captured.

For Harper, the election is unnecessary, the rules of Parliament are mere political games, his opponents are best ignored and the leaders’ debate was an exercise in bickering.

He is betting that if he keeps downplaying everything between now and election day, a dozing electorate could wake up May 3 to a majority Harper government.

Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs columnist with The Toronto Star.

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