OTTAWA — Sharp-elbowed exchanges and three leaders talking over one another marked the early going in a crucial election debate on the economy Thursday night in Calgary.
Stephen Harper, looking to extend his Conservative government rule into a second decade, maintained that a stay-the-course, tax-cutting agenda is the road to prosperity.
“I’ve never said things were great” in the Canadian economy,” Harper allowed.
“I’ve said we’re living in a very challenging enviroinment,” the three-term prime minister said before asking viewers directly, “where would you rather live?”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took turns jumping on Harper’s responses — and frequently each other’s — as the second of five leaders’ debates before the Oct. 19 vote took on a more combative tone.
“Mr. Harper sees the environment and the economy as polar opposites,” said Mulcair, standing in the middle between Harper to his left and Trudeau to his right.
“Everybody in Canada knows you have to work on both at the same time.”
“Which is why we’ve done both,” snapped Harper.
“Mr. Mulcair, you actually are the only leader in Canadian history to have gone to another country, you and your colleagues, to the United States to argue against Canadian jobs and against Canadian development projects.”
Trudeau, the lone leader in the debate who is proposing to run deficits over the next three years, challenged Harper by likening Canadians to homeowners taking on a home mortgage or a home renovation loan.
With rock-bottom interest rates and slack in the economy, “If this isn’t the time to invest, what would be?” asked Trudeau.
“This is the time to invest in the future of our country. Canadians know this. The only two people who don’t know this are the two gentlemen on this stage.”
Harper responded that the Conservatives are doing exactly that, without raising taxes and while balancing the books.
A couple of hundred chanting supporters penned outside the BMO Centre in Stampede Park bellowed their support and derision as the leaders arrived for the second of five scheduled debates before the Oct. 19 vote.
Chants of “four more years” competed with “Harper’s gotta go” and “just not ready” and “Trudeau! Trudeau!” from the crowd framed by a kaleidoscope of blue, red and orange signs that lined a fence separating partisans from arriving leaders.
It wasn’t the windiest part of the pre-debate show.
Both the Conservatives and New Democrats launched pre-emptive strikes against the Liberals in the hours before the leaders faced off over economic issues — considered the crucial, vote-moving issue of the election.
Their target, Trudeau, attempted to send his own message, staging a solo, sunrise canoe ride in Calgary, evoking memories of his father, Pierre, that Liberals quickly turned into a saccharine online ad.
The relentless air wars over more than six weeks of campaigning have left the three major parties in a statistical dead heat in the aggregate of public opinion surveys, dramatically upping the ante on each face-to-face debate among the leaders.
The debate was being carried on the Cable Public Affairs Channel, but not by the major networks. A debate last month, early in the 78-day campaign, attracted about 3.8 million viewers on CPAC, City and OMNI Television and host Rogers said it averaged 1.5 million viewers.
That compares to 10.6 million Canadians — and a 3.85 million average per minute — who watched the English language leaders debate in the 2011 campaign.
Thursday’s debate was being held in a large ballroom inside the BMO Centre with a live audience of 125 people.
Trudeau has said he would run deficits until 2019 to pay for an ambitious infrastructure program to stimulate growth, while Harper and Mulcair are promising to balance the country’s books immediately.
In an harbinger of what was to come, the NDP was out of the gate early Thursday, accusing the Liberals of a faulty fiscal framework, overestimating personal income tax revenues by about $1 billion, then floating a poll the party commissioned to suggest Trudeau is in trouble in his own Quebec riding.
“What’s even more troubling is that he’s run up the bill without committing a single dime to health care or education,” Andrew Thomson, an NDP candidate in Toronto and former Saskatchewan finance minister, said in Ottawa.
“How much more debt will he force on Canadians? How much bigger will the deficits get? Which of the programs Canadians rely on is he going to cut?”
Echoing the Conservative attack line on Trudeau, Thomson said it shows the Liberal leader is inexperienced.
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press