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Trudeau surprised and Harper held his own, but Mulcair won. That is how Gilbert Lavoie of La Presse saw the debate.
Lavoie's is far from a unanimous view, however.
Many have noted that Mulcair looked overly cautious.
He seemed excessively aware of that fact that he was auditioning to be prime minister not opposition leader. Advisors had obviously counselled the NDP leader to avoid, at all costs, his House of Commons prosecutor persona.
To this writer's eyes, Mulcair may have gone too far in that effort, especially in the early part of the debate.
He allowed Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to assume the role of Harper's chief attacker, at least for a while, which seems to have energized the Liberal leader's fans. Trudeau could not sustain his opening thrust, however, and, over the course of the debate, became more and more shrill and disjointed in his remarks.
His closing statement was pure cant.
"We are who we are and Canada is what Canada is," Trudeau intoned, "because we've always known that better is possible."
Green leader Elizabeth May was natural, spontaneous and intelligent. Viewers saw the real Elizabeth May, not the jet-lagged performer who bombed at last spring's Press Gallery dinner.
The Green Party leader did not let Prime Minister Harper get away with his claim that the Conservative government has cut greenhouse gas emissions, and quoted actual facts and figures to him.
And as the evening wore on Mulcair became more May-like, unafraid to delve into the thicket of policy, especially on energy and environment issues.
Mulcair was the only opposition leader who evoked the Harper government's record of gutting the federal government's environmental capacity, and was impressive when he talked in detail about his own record as environment minister of Quebec.
May also gave the NDP leader the chance to play the I-am-a-moderate-pragmatist role when she attacked him for being even tentatively willing to consider any pipeline project.
Mulcair could position himself between Harper, who "never saw a pipeline he did not like," and May, who never saw one "she did like."
The NDP leader even gave a spirited defence of the Energy East pipeline proposal, pointing out that it would be a safer way to transport oil, even raw bitumen, than by rail.
The Canadian business community and the economy-focused, middle class voters the NDP hopes to attract this time will be assured by Mulcair's "reasonable" position on pipelines. The Council of Canadians and many environmentalists will not.
Trudeau made little sense on minimum wage
It was predictable that Trudeau would spend almost as much time attacking Mulcair as Harper.
His jab at the NDP's plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour was bizarre, however. The NDP has never pretended that such a raise would apply to all workers in Canada. Only a small proportion of minimum wage workers are federally regulated; most are under provincial jurisdiction.
For the NDP, the point of raising the wages of more than 100,000 federally regulated workers would be exemplary -- to prod the provinces into raising their minimum wages.
The Liberal rhetoric on this is disingenuous.
Is it a coincidence that in the hours before the debate the Liberals' most reliable media ally, Huffington Post's Althia Raj, distributed a video showing that a handful of randomly selected voters thought the $15 per hour minimum wage would apply to all workers?
It is hardly surprising that the details of how Canada's federal system distributes powers are a mystery to many. The NDP has never claimed, however, that its plan is anything other than what it is, and Mulcair reiterated that point in the debate.
Indeed, when the NDP proposed the $15 federal minimum wage in the House, in an opposition day motion, the Liberals voted in favour.
Now Trudeau sees in this modest and highly achievable proposal an opportunity for a bit of campaign demagoguery.
It seemed to fall flat in the debate, however, and the NDP is now highlighting the fact that the Liberals seem, inexplicably, opposed to raising the wages of federally regulated workers.
The old canard about the NDP being 'soft on separatism'
Trudeau may have been more effective in his attacks on the NDP leader on the breaking-up-the-country-on-one-vote issue.
The NDP's position is fair, clear and represents the consensual view in Quebec, among separatists and federalists alike.
An NDP government would recognize a majority yes vote in a separation referendum as the basis for negotiations, as long as there had been an utterly clear and unambiguous question and the vote was demonstrably fair.
Note: the NDP's position says 50 per cent plus one triggers a negotiation. Those negotiations would not, perforce, give a separatist government everything it might demand. Far from it.
And if a Quebec separatist government tried to concoct a tricky, unclear question (as it did in 1995), an NDP government would push back even before a vote happened. It would discuss the question in Parliament, and, if necessary, refer it to the (federally appointed) Quebec Court of Appeal.
When the party articulated it in 2013, that latter aspect of the NDP stance was an affront to some Quebec nationalists. It caused a Quebec member of Mulcair's caucus to bolt to the Bloc Québecois.
In English Canada, there is political hay to be made, apparently, in trying to portray the NDP as soft on separatism, and the Liberals are bent on making that hay.
Trudeau even ignored moderator Paul Wells' pertinent question on the state of Canadian democracy under Harper to engage in some neo-McCarthyist, you're-a-fellow-traveler-with-the-hated-separatists slander against his NDP colleague.
Mulcair fought back, asking Trudeau what "his number" was, if not 50 per cent plus one. Trudeau's response of "nine," for the number of judges on the Supreme Court, struck some media commentators as clever, but was, in fact, a ridiculous non sequitur.
The unavoidable fact is that if the worst came to pass and Quebeckers did vote yes to a clear question on separation from Canada, a federal government of whatever political stripe would do its best to limit the enormous economic uncertainty that would ensue and quickly seek a modus vivendi with Quebec.
No Canadian government would have any interest in a 35-cent Canadian dollar; and none would ever consider keeping a recalcitrant Quebec in Canada by force.
Trudeau's efforts at playing Captain Canada on this are transparently opportunistic bluster with no content. As Mulcair pointed out, the only ones interested in raising the spectre of separatism in this campaign are Trudeau and newly re-instated Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe.
Who was the bigger demagogue: Harper or Trudeau?
What is most egregious about Trudeau's 50 per cent plus one gambit, however, is that it let Harper off the hook on the issue Maclean's Paul Wells had raised -- Harper's record on democracy. It is more than surprising that no commentators or pundits have called the Liberal leader on this.
None have pointed out that when given a chance to talk about the Fair Elections Act, the Conservatives' flagrant misuse of omnibus legislation and closure, Harper's hypocritical appointment of a record 59 partisans to the unelected Senate, the Conservative attacks on officers of Parliament (such as the Chief Electoral Officer, the Privacy Commissioner and the Parliamentary Budget Officer), and so much more, Trudeau chose, instead, to turn fire on Mulcair over an issue that is nowhere on the horizon.
Mulcair was the first leader to bring up the Fair Elections Act.
Without going into detail, he pointed out that a good many of the Act's notably unfair provisions were opposed by every expert who appeared before two parliamentary committees.
Harper's answer that the principal purpose of the Act is to require voter ID was patently false. But Mulcair was trying so hard to be positive and amiable he did not push back.
Only May tried to counter that howler, by interjecting that voter ID provisions actually became law, in Canada, in 2007. She did not have a chance to point out the many outrages of the Fair Elections Act. But May did explain that the new and onerous additional ID rules of Fair Elections will make it harder for the young, the poor, Indigenous Canadians and seniors to vote.
In a contest for who was the biggest and most dishonest demagogue of the evening it was a close call between Trudeau on the 50 per cent plus one issue and Harper on Fair Elections.
Harper's deficit fetish bites him
After all is said and done, the economy is what pundits and pollsters tell us voters care most about.
Before the current downturn, opposition leaders might have countered Harper's argument that he has sagely steered the economy through rough global headwinds by pointing to social justice issues such as rising inequality, household debt, weak employment growth and the lack of any plan for sustainable economic development, especially of natural resources.
Now, with the economy in a technical recession, the opposition has a new line of attack, which should appeal as much to centrist voters, who want to elect a solid and pragmatic managerial government, as to progressives.
Harper's policies have failed, opposition politicians now can say, even by his own measures.
As Mulcair quite effectively argued, Harper now owns not only the worldwide recession of 2008-09 but the current made-in-Canada recession. The promised surplus for this year, in which Harper irrationally places so much stock, is probably a mirage. Plus, manufacturing has yet to benefit from declining oil prices and a lower dollar, and most job growth is of the fragile and part time variety.
May was the only one on the stage to rightly argue that running a deficit is no big deal. It is a kind of fetish for the Conservatives, however.
It was, however, a bit odd for both Mulcair and Trudeau to criticize Harper for his string of deficits, most of which were caused by the government's resort to counter-cyclical stimulus spending -- a policy the opposition parties had vigorously urged on the reluctant Conservatives back in 2008.
Mulcair did make a good point when he said deep cuts in corporate taxes had not yielded results in terms of corporate investment. May helped him out by talking about the "dead" un-invested money the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty used to complain about.
Mulcair was particularly effective -- especially, again, in appealing to moderate, centrist voters -- when he explained why he would not raise anyone's personal income taxes.
Trudeau attacked him on that point. The Liberals promise to raise the marginal rate on high personal incomes, but would leave the excessively low corporate rate where it is.
Mulcair explained that a raise in the federal rate on upper incomes would result in a near confiscatory combined federal-provincial tax bite in some provinces.
With a combined marginal rate over 60 per cent, he said, a province such as New Brunswick would have a hard time attracting doctors.
For voters looking to see if the NDP has truly shed its socialist past, that should have been a revealing moment.
As with the rest of the debate, however, it is not clear if enough voters were paying sufficiently close attention to notice.
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