TORONTO, Canada — The main events in Canada’s federal election campaign — televised, back-to-back French and English language debates — have come and gone without the proverbial knock out punch that makes or breaks political fortunes.
But they were lively affairs. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, the leaders of Canada’s four main political parties squared off on a range of issues, including corporate taxes, gun control, the buying of U.S.-made fighter jets, publicly funded health care and how best to keep the French-speaking province of Quebec from becoming an independent country.
The fact that one of the debates was in French indicates how distinctly Canadian this political ritual is. No politician can hope to become prime minister without speaking both of Canada’s official languages.
The debates also emphasized the different political cultures of Canada and the United States. All political leaders, for instance, including the most right-wing of the bunch, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, vowed to defend cradle-to-grave medicare for all residents. And the presence of two socialist-inspired parties — the New Democratic Party and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois — would of course be unthinkable south of the border.
Indeed, Canadian politicians believe they can score points by warning against what they describe as America’s Wild West political and social culture. And so, during Wednesday’s French-language debate, the three opposition parties ganged up on Harper, accusing his minority Conservative Party government of “Americanizing” Canada.
“I’m afraid that if you are returned to office, then you’re going to reduce our democracy, you’re going to curtail it, limit it and that will be an example of the Americanization of our values,” said Michael Ignatieff, leader of the centrist Liberal Party.
Harper, who has headed minority governments since 2006, gave what sounded like a half-hearted defense.
“Americans are good neighbors and good friends, but we have the best country in the world,” Harper replied.
Ignatieff, who spent years teaching at Harvard University, shot back: “When I lived in the United States, I became more Canadian than ever. I don’t accept Republican values.”
Ignatieff was attacking two of Harper’s main election promises: abolishing the “long gun” registry law, which obliges owners of rifles to register their weapons in a central data base, and imposing minimum prison sentences for a series of crimes while building bigger prisons.
“That’s an Americanization of Canada,” said Ignatieff, who has been accused in Conservative ads of being more American than Canadian because of the many years he lived abroad.
“Building prisons like Americans would be an Americanization of our justice system and would make us less secure, not more secure,” Ignatieff said, insisting the emphasis should be on programs that prevent crime, such as those that reduce high school drop out rates.
Bloc Quebecois leader, Gilles Duceppe, who wants to make Quebec an independent country, piled on: “His motto is an American one — more guns in circulation and more people in prisons.”
Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, joined in by suggesting Harper is in fact more right-wing that some Republicans.
“In the United States, where Mr. Harper’s ideas come from, Republicans in some states are rethinking their approach because it doesn’t reduce crime,” Layton said, referring to some states moving away from what is known as “mandatory minimum” sentencing.
And while no one brought up climate change, Layton figured it could only help to accuse Harper of having “followed George Bush’s environmental policies.”
Harper, whose electoral base is in Western Canada and rural areas, said farmers and hunters are sick and tired of dealing with increased bureaucracy about their long guns every time a gun crime is committed in a city. And he accused his rivals of being soft on crime, while saying nothing of the fact that Canada’s crime rate has dropped significantly during the last several years.
"We need severe punishment for severe crimes.” Harper said. “We can’t have candy-coated punishment for serious crimes.”
Harper’s main message in both debates was that Canada is emerging from the recession faster, and in better shape, than any other Western economy. Canada needs a stable, majority Conservative government to continue its economic revival, he argued.
He achieved his goal of coming across as calm, cool, and “prime ministerial.” But his campaign has been on the defensive.
He was forced to apologize when it became known that several voters were prevented from attending his campaign events because they were judged to be less than die-hard Conservatives. One was a young woman who was found to have a picture on her Facebook page of herself with Ignatieff, taken when she had gone to hear the Liberal leader speak the week before.
He’s also under fire for a leaked draft of a report by Canada’s auditor general, which said the Conservatives “misinformed” Parliament about how they spent some of the $1 billion it cost to hold the G20 economic summit last summer.
And Harper’s “tough-on-crime” message has been undermined by revelations that one of his closest advisers, Bruce Carson, had been convicted of five counts of fraud. Harper said he only knew of two of the counts when he hired Carson to work in his office.
The latest polls indicate that Harper remains on course for at least another minority government, but the race has tightened significantly.
An EKOS poll released Wednesday has the Conservatives with 34 percent support nationally, compared to 29 percent for the Liberals, and 19 percent for the NDP. The Green party, which has never elected a candidate to Parliament, has 9 percent support. The Bloc Quebecois has only 8 percent, but its vote is concentrated in Quebec, where it is expected to win a majority of that province’s 75 seats.
The last Republican government standing in North America — as Harper’s has been described — is struggling, but still very much alive.