OTTAWA—Besides the occasional zinger that kept journalists chuckling in the media room at the Government Convention Centre, there were few surprises during the leader’s debate in the room next door Tuesday evening.
The first one-liner came within minutes when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe chided Conservative leader Stephen Harper after the incumbent PM responded to the first of six pre-recorded questions from Canadians.
“I would first like to congratulate Mr. Harper for answering a question from a citizen for the first time in this campaign,” began Duceppe, hitting the Conservative leader over allegations he is running a bubble campaign that keeps him overly insulated from the public.
Harper, for his part, fell short in the witty-one-liners department, but did as he was expected: stayed calm and in control as a prime minister should while the leaders of the other three parties focused most of their attacks on his record in office.
Harper used those attacks as evidence of what would happen if he didn’t get returned to Parliament with a majority mandate.
“Look at the debate we’re having today—we’re going to be back into a fifth election in no time at all,” he said.
Harper has made the prospect of an unstable Parliament or a Conservative minority Parliament being overturned by a Liberal-led coalition a central campaign message. Minutes after Harper finished the debate, his party sent out a press release titled “Conservative Party of Canada Coalition Watch.”
It even had a “Breaking News” tagline and detailed what it described as proof from the debate that Ignatieff was ready to overturn a minority Conservative government.
“In response to a question about coalitions, Michael Ignatieff said the party that wins the most seats doesn’t necessarily get to form the government,” read the release.
“'If you get more seats than any other party you get to TRY first to gain the confidence of the House” read the release, quoting part of Ignatieff's answer.
The release alleges that if a Conservative minority re-introduces the budget they tabled just before Parliament was dissolved, Ignatieff and the other three parties will vote against it and pave the way for Ignatieff to be Prime Minister “with the support of Bloc Québécois and the NDP and pursue their high-tax-and-spend agenda.”
Ignatieff ruled out a coalition again that day, but beyond suggesting that a minority Conservative government will have to secure the confidence of Parliament, he has yet to elucidate any intentions for how the Liberals may proceed.
Auditor General's Report
During the debate, Harper faced heat from the other party leaders over a leaked draft of Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s report on some of the spending during the G8/G20 summits.
Each leader, including Harper, said they wanted to see a final copy of the report, something Fraser said could not happen until Parliament was sitting again because of rules outlined in the Auditor General Act.
Leaked draft versions of the report said the Tory government did not act “clearly” and “transparently” when it sought Parliament’s permission for a $50 million G8 fund for projects in a Conservative riding.
Fraser strongly cautioned the public to wait for the final report in a statement released Monday.
“Sometimes during the process of fact validation, additional information is brought to our attention. Only the final report that is tabled in Parliament represents our audit findings and conclusions,” read the statement.
During the debate, Harper said “Every single dollar is accounted for” from the G8/G20 Summits, and that many of those investments serve those communities for years to come.
Ignatieff disagreed. “This wasn’t stimulus—this was scattering money around on gazebos and fake lakes,” he said.
Harper also defended the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets against Ignatieff’s and Layton’s claims that the purchase would come at the expense of social spending.
Ignatieff said the Conservatives were putting jets and jails ahead of healthcare and education.
Harper countered that the NDP and Liberal leaders were trying to finance campaign promises on non-existent money, stating that the purchase of the jets won’t come for five years and suggestions that money can be used now are misleading.
But Layton said those billions would have to come from social spending down the road. Harper countered that low taxes would keep the economy improving and provide Canada the funds to pursue various spending priorities.