Canadian political leaders show teeth in TV debate to woo voters

10:28, April 14, 2011      

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by Mark Bourrie, Zhang Dacheng

The leaders of Canada's four major parliamentary parties struggled Tuesday night to dominate a nationally televised debate that was expected to be the highlight of the federal election campaign that ends May 2.

Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who leads the Conservative party in a minority government. Ignatieff tried to paint Harper as overbearing, undemocratic and controlling. Harper, for his part, struggled to come across as a solid manager of the economy.

Ignatieff attacked Harper for his plan to cut corporate taxes from 18 percent to 15 percent while the country runs a deficit approaching 50 billion Canadian dollars (50 billion U.S. dollars) this year and companies earned record profits. In comparison, the U.S. corporate tax rate is 30 percent.

Ignatieff said the tax cuts would cost the Canadian government about 6 billion Canadian dollars (6 billion U.S. dollars) a year.

"Nobody can understand why that makes sense in the middle of the toughest deficit we've seen because of your waste and mismanagement," Ignatieff said. "That's why we're having an election, because you didn't tell the truth."

Harper said raising corporate tax rates would "send a negative message to investors" and hurt job creation. He warned that Canada's economy still had not recovered from the global recession.

It is unclear whether the debate will change voter preferences. The latest polls show the Conservatives with just fewer than 40 percent of voter support, compared to about 30 percent for the Liberals.

Canada has a "first past the post" electoral system in which the candidate in each of the country's 308 constituencies with the highest number of votes is elected a member of parliament. With votes split between the country's political parties, support of about 42 percent can give a political party a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

The television debate was a subject of controversy because the Green Party, which won almost 1 million votes in the 2008 election, was shut out of Tuesday's show. The consortium of the CBC, the state-owned broadcaster, and three private television networks that organized the debate refused to allow Green leader Elizabeth May to participate because her party has never won a seat in the House of Commons.

Last week, May asked a Federal Court judge to overturn the decision, but the judge refused to hear her case.

Harper, who looked directly into the television cameras instead of at his political opponents, pleaded with Canadians to give him a majority of seats in the 308-member House of Commons. Harper urged Canadians to end the seven years of political deadlock, which has resulted in three early elections.

"If we have another minority government, my fear is that we will have a fifth election or a sixth election," Harper said, "Canada's got the strongest recovery of any country on Earth, and suddenly it's plunged into a fourth election in seven years, and Canadians don't know why," Harper said. But Ignatieff interjected that Harper hadn't "earned a majority government."

"We have to get Parliament back to work," Harper insisted, "What matters to Canadians is not our bickering in Parliament."

All of the party leaders tried to land a knockout blow. In several recent elections, the TV debate has changed the outcome. Probably the most dramatic moment was in 1984, when Conservative challenger Brian Mulroney embarrassed Liberal prime minister John Turner for a series of patronage appointments.

Mulroney deflated Turner's election campaign and went on to win the greatest landslide in Canadian history.

There were no historic moments in Tuesday night's debate, but the party leaders who took part will hope it gives their campaign some fuel. Unless public opinion changes in the next three weeks, Canada may end up with another hung parliament.

The political leaders were polite to each other during the two-hour debate but worked to undermine their opponents' support.

Ignatieff tried to portray the prime minister as controlling and domineering. He said Harper isolated himself from voters and accused the prime minister's campaign team of ejecting young people from Conservative campaign events. One woman was put out of a Harper rally because she had a picture of herself with Ignatieff on her Facebook site.

"This is not strong leadership, this is weak leadership. What are you afraid of?" Ignatieff said.

"You've shut down Parliament twice," Ignatieff said, suggesting Harper was treating Parliament like a pesky sideshow. "This isn't bickering Mr. Harper, this is democracy," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff chided Harper for being the first Canadian prime minister to fail to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. He said Canada had lost influence in the world because Harper's government had cut some foreign aid programs for ideological reasons.

"You are a man who will shut down anything you can't control. That's the core of your vision of government ... and it's hostile to the values of democracy upon which this country is based," Ignatieff said.

Harper argued his government had not reduced aid to developing countries, especially Haiti.

Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Quebec separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, accused Harper of being controlling and out of touch.

"I'd like to congratulate Mr. Harper for answering a question from a citizen for the first time during this campaign," Duceppe said.

Ignatieff and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, responding to a question from the public, accused Harper of making it much more difficult for immigrants to bring their families into Canada.

Ignatieff said his father, who arrived with his parents as a refugee from the Russian Revolution, might not have been able to enter the country under Conservative policies.

Layton said his mother-in-law, who immigrated from China, may also not have been welcomed. "How can we regard it as somehow acceptable that a family has to wait for 10 years for their mother or father to come and join them? That is just so wrong," Layton said

"Thank goodness she wasn't applying to come here now because she might never have got to see my granddaughter," Layton said. "That's simply wrong and it's tearing families apart."

Harper insisted his government had been supportive of immigration.

"There will always be far more people willing to come to Canada than we can admit in any year," Harper said. But he added "our economy needs [immigration.] Our society needs it and we're all better for it."

There is only one English-language debate in the campaign. Wednesday night, the four leaders will debate in French, with their remarks directed primarily at Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois holds 47 of Quebec's 75 seats.

The election was called after Harper's Conservative government was defeated March 25 by the opposition parties' non-confidence move, which found the government in contempt of parliament.

The parliament was dissolved the following day and Canada's 41st federal election, the fourth in the past seven years, will be held May 2.

Source: Xinhua
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