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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was a one-trick pony, breathlessly carrying on about his plan to invest billions in roads and transit, while winning the most-persistent-and-annoying-interrupter trophy.

Trudeau seemed for much of the debate like an over-anxious, over-wound energizer bunny.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair was, by contrast, quite calm, but not as somnolent as last time.

The NDP brains trust has obviously decided that their leader’s most important task in these frustrating set-piece situations is to seem prime ministerial. At all costs, they must have coached him, never appear shrill or angry.

Trudeau took up all the shrillness and anger in the room. 

But Mulcair’s strategy of standing by quietly rather than getting too aggressive could have been risky in its own way. He could have allowed himself to be shouted down or too often left on the sidelines.

Did that happen? The viewers and voters will have to decide.

Whatever else happened during the Globe and Mail sponsored leaders’ debate on the economy, one thing is clear: the NDP leader was strong and effective in putting the Harper record on the environment on the table.

In fact, on that one subject, Mulcair was by far the most cogent and forceful of the three. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was, of course, quite conspicuously absent.

The current Official Opposition leader did his best to stake out green territory. He even pulled the neat trick of credibly linking the Harper government’s failure to get buy-in on any pipeline projects to its gutting of a federal role in environmental oversight and approval.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper did not take that lying down, and accused Mulcair of going to Washington to sabotage one such pipeline project, Keystone XL. Mulcair, Harper argued, was willing to sacrifice Canadian jobs.

Mulcair has always, however, taken the view that the Keystone XL pipeline would export jobs. We should keep that work here, the NDP leader says, by refining the bitumen the pipeline would carry in Canada.

That view does not quite fit with the environmental movement’s position that the tar sands’ product is inherently unsustainable, wherever it is refined.

Trudeau and Mulcair attacked each other too much

Overall, the nightmare of the two opposition leaders attacking each other while letting Harper off the hook came at least partly true. And Harper seemed confident and comfortable on the economic terrain, with a sympathetic moderator, even if his claims were not always quite accurate.

For instance, the Conservative leader said that on his watch the Canadian economy has created 1.3 million net new jobs.

The other leaders did not fully challenge him on that dubious claim, nor did the moderator, Globe and Mail editor David Walmsley.

Mulcair did talk about the loss of 400,000 manufacturing jobs, but did not mention until the post-debate scrums that unemployment is still higher today than when the Conservatives took office two years before the 2008 recession.

Trudeau kept pointing to the somewhat abstract fact that Harper has the worst record for economic growth of any post World War Two prime minister. That information comes from research Jim Stanford and other union movement economists did. It is an interesting historic factoid, but does it really matter to voters?

Harper cleverly kept admitting that things are not entirely rosy with the economy, but blamed everything that is wrong on global conditions. Given those challenges from outside our borders, Harper said, we’re doing as well as we can.

The not so subtle subtext for Harper is that in an uncertain world voters should stick with the safe, tried and true

When he makes that pitch, he echoes the 1891 Conservative campaign, John A. Macdonald’s last, which featured the slogan: “The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader.”

It was only at the end of the evening that Walmsley put it to Harper that the Canadian economy faces serious challenges in the coming years and needs “new thinking.” We have to move away from natural resources and toward a knowledge economy, Walmsley asserted.

On that occasion, Harper was forced to push back and say he did not agree with Walmsley’s premise. But he did not have much more to say than to repeat his lines about low taxes and a zero deficit.

When they had their chance, the other leaders also mostly stuck to their talking points and did not seriously address Walmsley’s issue.

Trudeau kept to his mantra about borrowing massively to invest in infrastructure.

Mulcair paid obeisance to the notion of a knowledge economy, but then told an obviously rehearsed anecdote about a family he had met on his kitchen table tour. This writer did not grasp the relevance of that little story to the moderator’s question.

The debate’s sponsor had its own agenda

The Globe’s Walmsley was not shy about allowing his own ideological bias to show through.

The Globe endorsed Harper last time, and even though the paper has been brutally critical of the Harper government on such initiatives as the Fair Elections Act, it is still very much pro-big business and everything that’s good for big business. We should not be surprised if Canada’s self-styled national newspaper repeats its endorsement this time.

When Walmsley broached the subject of the environment (which, not surprisingly, he yoked with energy, as though the environment itself were not economically significant enough to merit its own segment) his approach was all about money.

As for the Conservative leader, the concept of sustainable development does not seem to exist for the Globe’s editor-in-chief — who even shares Harper’s cold and dry accountant’s demeanour.

Walmsley badgered Mulcair on the cost of the NDP’s cap-and-trade plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He did not, however, badger anyone, least of all the Conservative leader, on the fact that Canada has one of the worst records in the world on climate change.

In this space, in November 2013, we reported on the non-partisan international Climate Change Performance Index.

The index showed that Canada’s record on per capita emissions is one of the worst in the world. On a basket of climate change policy and results indicators it ranked Canada at or near the bottom on all.

Such considerations are not part of Walmsley’s corporate boardroom frame of reference.

But Mulcair did not rise to The Globe editor’s bait on the dollar cost of cap-and-trade, as though there is no economic cost to global warming. Mulcair turned the conversation away from narrowly defined monetary considerations. He said we must worry about both our fiscal deficits and our looming environmental deficit.

Harper amazingly claimed that his government has managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without taking any other than token regulatory measures — measures which pointedly do not include the oil and gas sector.

It was left to the offstage Green leader Elizabeth May to rebut the Conservative leader on that howler. If Harper wants to take credit for any reduction in emissions, said May, he has to take credit for the great recession of 2008. That catastrophe, and not anything the federal government did, is the only reason there were any emission reductions in Canada.

As for the Liberal leader, well his party has no climate change policy, aside from letting the provinces do all the heavy lifting, while providing undefined federal “leadership.” 

Trudeau was good on refugees, but downright rude on minimum wage

There were a few revealing moments during the debate.

One happened when Liberal leader Trudeau quoted Harper’s former chief public servant, one-time Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch, as supporting increased infrastructure investment at this time.

Harper dismissed the views of his once valued colleague with an insulting comment about public servants.

And Trudeau did well to bring up refugee health and the refugee issue more generally.

In his response, Harper uttered the biggest whopper of the evening.

He accused both the NDP and Liberal leaders of wanting to immediately bring in “hundreds of thousands” of refugees, without any proper security screening.

Mulcair firmly corrected the Conservative leader, and said his party merely wants to fulfill the United Nations’ urgent request that Canada do its part by admitting not hundreds of thousands, but 9,000 desperate refugees, as soon as possible.

The NDP leader also, quite justifiably, chastised Harper for blatant fear mongering on the backs of refugees.

The most annoying moment of the evening came with Trudeau’s effort to badger Mulcair on the latter’s promise to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

In explaining this policy, Mulcair emphasized that it only covered federally regulated sectors, such as banking and transport. An NDP government would raise the wages of a mere 100,000 Canadians, not every Canadian worker on minimum wage, Mulcair said. 

The idea, according to the NDP leader, is to do what the federal government can, and encourage the provinces to follow suit.

Trudeau — who voted in favour of an NDP motion proposing the $15 minimum wage — was particularly rude on this issue. It appeared that the Liberal leader was so afraid of what his NDP counterpart might have to say that he wanted to prevent Mulcair from speaking at all.

At that low point of the evening, the Liberal leader’s primitive and insulting tactic was: when you have no valid point of your own to make, try drowning out the other guy.

It is at such times that one is tempted to throw a shoe at the television set. 


Photo: screenshot

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...