More than 600 people filled the hall in downtown Toronto last Thursday night to watch what promised to be a contentious all-candidates debate about Canada’s role in fighting poverty, both at home and abroad.

Stephen Lewis, Canada’s sharpest debater, had taken time from his busy schedule as UN special envoy for African AIDS victims to be there as a questioner, so that candidates would feel some real heat over the poverty issue, which had barely surfaced in the campaign.

The television cameras were ready to roll. Only one problem: the Conservative candidate hadn’t shown up.

And he never did.

So the debate went ahead with an empty chair representing the party that appears poised to form the next government of Canada.

Why should the Conservatives bother to send someone to a debate about poverty? What’s in it for them? Probably not many votes.

Their main policy for dealing with the poor seems to be tougher crime laws, and a cut in the GST, which would allow those earning under $12,500 a year to save $64 — enough to start a new life.

If the Conservatives don’t show much interest in poverty before the election, are they likely to afterwards?

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have run a slick, tightly controlled campaign. With the Liberal sponsorship scandal providing a great punching bag, they’ve been largely able to keep the focus off their own agenda, which, among other things, is about expanding the rights of the well-to-do.

Harper has spent most of his adult life working for right-wing political parties, either in the backrooms or as an MP.

One of his few “outside” jobs, from 1998 to 2002, was heading the National Citizens Coalition, a lobby group founded in the 1960s by wealthy businessman Colin Brown, expressly for the purpose of preventing the establishment of public health care in Canada.

Despite a hefty corporate-funded war chest, the NCC failed to stop medicare.

Another pet cause of the NCC has been fighting laws aimed at restricting the power of corporations to influence election outcomes through advertising.

Happily, the NCC lost that battle too, despite Harper’s vigorous efforts on behalf of the over-privileged.

In 2002, Brown’s son, Colin T. Brown, presented Harper with the NCC’s “medal of freedom,” praising him for the consistency of his commitment to NCC causes. Previous winners include Conrad Black.

All this right-wing stuff seems far from mind these days, as Harper manages to present himself — with the media’s help — as a moderate, even a unifier, who’s mostly interested in cleaning up corruption and improving the lives of ordinary Canadians.

No matter how skilful his makeover, Harper’s real agenda, the one he’s dedicated himself to throughout his adult life, is divisive. It’s about championing the already well-secured rights of those at the upper end of the income scale.

As for those at the bottom end, the empty chair at last week’s debate says it all.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...