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Will Trudeau again choose to target Mulcair rather than Harper?

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The second debate of the federal election campaign happens tonight (follow The Globe and Mail debate on rabble.ca), and pundits are saying it will be a crucial event.

Each leader will have to prove his mettle, they say.

And all the of the leaders can be referred to as "he." Green Party leader Elizabeth May is excluded, but promises to use Twitter to get herself into the discussion.

During the last debate, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau chose, at a critical point, to turn his fire away from the man who has been prime minister since 2006 -- with all of the well-known and devastating consequences for the environment, science and the practice of democracy -- and aim at Official Opposition and NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

Of late, the NDP and Liberals have been expending a lot of energy attacking each other. But the Liberals have been more dogged and aggressive in their attacks on the New Democrats than vice versa. 

The last time the leaders debated, in August, Harper was spared having to answer for his government's highly dubious record on democracy when Trudeau changed the channel and tried to undermine his NDP rival.

What will happen this time?

The debate tonight is supposed to be about the economy. But is it too much to hope that the leaders might link other vital concerns to that ephemeral thing we call the economy?

For instance, on fiscal policy, the Harper government chose to use its annual budgets as a cover for democracy-defying, stealth omnibus legislation.

Using what had, in the past, been routine, housekeeping budget implementation bills, the Conservatives scrapped much of Canada's environmental protection, changed immigration rules to make it harder for families to reunite, imposed new workfare rules on First Nations people, and denied health care to refugees. And that's just the start of it. There was much more. 

Will that anti-democratic practice come up in the debate tonight? We are dealing with budget legislation here, so, quite literally, it is part of the Harper government's economic record.

But don't hold your breath. Do not expect The Globe and Mail's Harper-admiring publisher, Phillip Crawley, to instruct the debate's moderator, Globe editor-in-chief David Walmsley, to broach those issues. 

As for the opposition parties, the NDP has now made itself a target by releasing what it calls its fiscal framework. The document tells, in high-level and general terms, what revenues an NDP government expects and from where, and how it would spend those revenues.

So far, most in the media who have commented have tended to praise the NDP's framework with faint damns.

The National Post's John Ivison is a well-known ideological, as they say in Europe, neoliberal. There is nothing the NDP might do or say that would ever earn his approval. He will always consider the people now in Official Opposition to be, at heart, "dangerous socialists."

But the worst damn Ivison could come up with on Wednesday was that the NDP's plan was "modest" and would do "little damage." He mostly emphasizes the lack of detail on the spending side, and does not even bother mentioning a single item he believes would cause "damage."

The Toronto Star's Chantal Hébert takes much the same tack. But her critique is more from the progressive point of view. There is little in the NDP's framework, she says, with which the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would not be comfortable. 

Maybe that's exactly what Mulcair was hoping for. He might have calculated that voters are not ideological self-identifiers, and do not care if policies are of the right, left or centre. They just want policies that seem workable and fair. 

As if to prove that point, Hébert's newspaper is, officially, far more favourable to the NDP approach than she is. In its editorial on the NDP plan The Star characterizes it as a "prudent bid for credibility."

"Tom Mulcair's spending plans are likely to survive the sniff test with voters who are considering the NDP but hesitate to hand them a blank cheque," The Star's editorial writer opines.

Tonight Mulcair will have the challenge of vigorously promoting his prudent, but notionally progressive plan. To be frank, he will have to do a much better job, this time, than he did back in August.

Relying on an almost forced smile and avoiding any hint of the assertiveness that characterized his parliamentary performance will not cut it this time for the NDP leader. 

Mulcair will not be able to play a front runner's careful, protecting-his-lead game this time. His party is not in the lead now, and he will have to play vigorous offence -- showing off his vaunted intelligence and grasp of detail -- if he hopes to advance his cause. 

Both opposition leaders also have the challenge of interpreting the economy agenda in a sufficiently broad way so as to confront Harper on his democracy, compassion, distrust for science and contempt for the environment agenda.

They would be well advised to force the issue on areas where Harper is vulnerable, and not permit the entire debate to become a shallow and narrow exercise in accounting.

The economy is not just about numbers. It is about people, too; Mulcair and Trudeau must not forget that. 

It would be a tragedy if, again, Harper could stand by and smirk while the two leaders who are supposedly to his left took futile swipes at each other.

 

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