It is debate week in Vancouver. Four federal leaders will have at each other, Thursday in French, and Friday in English.

Debates are unpredictable. Sometimes they define elections, more often not. But they do allow the public a chance to judge the party leaders.

Ideas are featured in this campaign to date. The expected mud-slinging, the least appealing aspect of parliamentary behaviour, has not taken over. Instead, policies on child care, crime, amateur sport, equal marriage, and military spending have been brought forward, and argued about.

In 2004, Gilles Duceppe did a great job in the English debate, and won new respect. In French, Paul Martin failed to connect. His language skills let him down.

Growing up speaking English, his Francophone father sent him off to French language school, but Martin has problems sounding coherent, clear and precise in the language. His poor performance hurt whatever chance he had to overcome the wave of distaste in Quebec for the Liberals.

The Conservative promise to give an important boost to military spending is not going to win favour in Quebec where foreign policy questions are important, and military answers are viewed skeptically.

Who wins elections in Canada has usually been decided in Quebec. Both the NDP and the Conservatives look to be locked out in the province. The Bloc are hanging on to around 50 per cent levels of popular support, and should win 55 of Quebec’s 75 seats, leaving 20 for the Liberals.

The French debate matters to Jack Layton, who is a Quebec native, and knows Quebec nationalism is not going away. He has the chance to turn around the attempt by Martin to label the 2006 federal election a referendum on whether there should be another Quebec referendum. If Layton can contribute some wisdom to the debate about the role of Quebec in Canada, it would add support to the NDP campaign to play a defining role in the next Parliament.Indeed, for Layton, a strong showing in the debates could make the difference between increasing support or disappointment on January 23.

Layton is better placed to address the weaknesses in Liberal foreign policy than Stephen Harper. After all, it was Harper who wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal apologizing on behalf of Canadians for the Liberal failure to join the American invasion of Iraq.

To win a majority in the rest of the country when you start at zero out of 75 in Quebec (out of a total of 308 parliamentary seats) is next to impossible. For example, given the results in 2004, for the Conservatives to have formed a majority government without Quebec, they would have had to add 76 seats in Ontario, giving them 100, instead of 24.

Given 20 Quebec seats, for the Liberals to win a majority in 2006, they will need to find some 135 seats out of a total of 233 seats outside Quebec. The prairies are not going to yield much to the Liberals, who won only six of 56 available seats last time. The NDP is strong in Saskatchewan, and in Winnipeg, and looks to increase its representation from the current four.

The Conservatives have Alberta to themselves.

The Atlantic region is a battleground, but the Liberals won 22 of 32 seats in 2004, and could do as well again.

The prize is Ontario, and its 106 seats. Last time, the Liberals fell from a near dominance of the province to 75 seats, with the Conservatives winning 24, and the NDP seven.

The Liberals are looking like the third party in B.C. despite big efforts by the Martin government to increase its visibility in the province. The NDP are in tight races with the Liberals and the Conservatives, and should make gains against both. Of its 17 seats in the West, the Liberals hold eight in B.C. (out of 36) and all three in the territories.

So, as with the Conservatives, the only way the Liberals can win a majority is by taking 100 seats in Ontario. And even then the Liberals will need to hold on to 13 seats in Western Canada, while making 25 gains in Ontario.

Layton is the only party leader from Ontario, but it is fitting that it will be in Vancouver where he gets his first chance in the debates to raise his profile. He needs a strong national campaign to make gains in the West, and to outperform the Liberals in the West in order to play a stronger leading role in Parliament.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...