With one month remaining in Canada’s longest election period in more than a century, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau descended upon Calgary on Thursday to participate in the second English-language debate of the campaign season. Notably absent from last night’s debate was Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May who participated via Twitter and posted her own rebuttals on YouTube.
The debate was titled Our Economy, Our Future and aimed to provide insight into each party’s economic platform, in the context of the “technical recession” the country now faces. This issue is a particularly resonate one in Calgary where the significant drop in commodity prices has had a profound effect on the local economy. Each leader was successful in presenting his own unique approach, and the debate was an attempt by all three leaders to isolate their ideology from one another in an attempt to break the virtual three way tie the polls have been reflecting.
Much of the evening saw Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair go toe to toe to outline how his party’s plan would right the country’s financial situation, while Mr. Harper tended to calmly deliver his plan while not engaging in the more heated conversations. On numerous occasions, Mr. Trudeau expressed the Liberal’s plan for economic growth: Investment in infrastructure while borrowing interest rates are low and raising income taxes for the wealthy. Mr. Mulcair emphasized the NDP plan that focuses on affordable child care and increasing taxes on bigger corporations. Mr. Harper contrasted these with a plan that focuses on keeping taxes low to encourage investment, and balancing future budgets.
Themes of the Issues
The debate included six topics – jobs, energy and the environment, infrastructure, immigration, housing, and taxation. These topics allowed for each of the leaders to show how their plans would be the best for Canada’s future.
The current status of Canada’s weakened economic performance was a common theme in every question asked throughout the evening. When prompted with questions from Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau about the current economic status of the country, Mr. Harper defended his performance by pointing towards a depressed global economy and highlighting Canada’s performance relative to other nations.
The first question was about a jobs plan. Mr. Harper referred to affordable investments, balanced budgets and an economy with a low tax environment as leading to a strengthened job market. Mr. Harper highlighted Canada’s performance in creating new private sector jobs as being the strongest amongst G7 nations in the years since the global economic crisis. “The way to build our economy is to make specific investments that will build our labour force, build our infrastructure, build our manufacturing, while at the same time making sure we’re keeping our taxes down and budget balanced” Mr. Harper said.
When prompted on a jobs plan, Mr. Mulcair pointed towards the NDP plan for diversification. He was critical of the Prime Minister for not looking beyond the natural resource sector, and cited his party’s plan to drop taxes from small and mid-size businesses “because they generate 80 per cent of new jobs in this country.” Mr. Mulcair also referenced the party’s platform plank of affordable child care, saying this would strengthen the economy and allow for a stronger work-life balance.
Mr. Trudeau highlighted the Liberal plan for economic growth that includes raising income taxes for the highest-earning Canadians and investing significantly in infrastructure. This plan calls for running a deficit over the course of the next four years, but Trudeau argues that it is a good time to borrow while interest rates are low, and in the long-term the investment will jumpstart the economy.
Energy and Environment
Mr. Mulcair was critical of the Liberals and Conservatives for their role in the Kyoto protocol, while outlining the NDP cap-and-trade system in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Mulcair did not give this proposal when prompted, but he did speak out against a carbon tax, saying it is not a suitable system to limit emissions.
Mr. Trudeau expressed that the cap-and-trade system being proposed by the NDP is “nonsensical”, saying that a Liberal government would allow provincial jurisdiction over its climate change plans, expressing support for a carbon tax as a system that works.
Mr. Harper illustrated the Conservative stance, citing that his government is the first to see a raise in the energy sector while accomplishing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. He expressed that this did not occur through carbon taxes, arguing that the taxes are not about reducing emissions but are rather about raising money for the government.
Since releasing his infrastructure plan last month, Mr. Trudeau has continually advocated for investment during the election. The infrastructure question was unsurprisingly addressed to him, and asked what a successful ends to his spending plan would be. Mr. Trudeau said that his plan is an “investment into the future” that would kick start the economy. On numerous occasions throughout the evening, Mr. Trudeau said that he was the only “honest” leader by suggesting that he would in fact run a deficit for three years.
Mr. Harper wrote off the Liberal’s plan as being irresponsible. “Running a deficit is not the type of protection our economy needs right now” Harper expressed, citing an unstable global economy and a need to continue balancing a budget. He pointed towards the Conservative investments in infrastructure as being beneficial, whilst not having to raise taxes and not having to “spend more for the sake of spending more.”
The NDP infrastructure plan was intimately tied with their commitment to balance the budget for the next four years by the leader and his opponents alike. Mr. Mulcair labelled the Liberal infrastructure plan as “reckless”, saying that it is an unsustainable plan to leave tens of billions of dollars in debt “on the backs of future generations.” The leader positioned the NDP as the “long term” option for infrastructure, illustrating a twenty-year plan that sees spending in infrastructure each year, aiming to establish a long-term relationship between federal and municipal branches of government.
Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau were in tandem on immigration more so than any other topic throughout the evening. Both criticized Harper for citing security concerns as a reasoning for not admitting more refugees into Canada. Mr. Mulcair specifically suggested that the Conservatives have been “fear mongering”, and accused Mr. Harper of using security concerns as an excuse to “do nothing.”
Mr. Harper defended his position on immigration, saying the government is now allowing more refugees from the immigration crisis stemming out of Syria and that the position held by the two opposing leaders as not being conscientious of screening processes.
Mr. Harper cited the price of housing in Canada as a positive rather than a negative, expressing that Canada’s home ownership has risen to record levels compared to financial crises seen in other countries that are centred on the crash of the housing market. Mr. Harper pointed towards a renovation tax credit and a doubling of the contribution limit to the tax free savings account as means for revenue generation amongst the country’s middle class.
Prompted on how he would help the middle class who face expensive housing, Mr. Mulcair pointed towards the affordable child care plan and a $15 minimum wage as providing Canadians with more expendable money, thus freeing up the strain the middle class would feel through higher housing prices. Mr. Mulcair criticized the renovation tax credit proposed by Mr. Harper, asking how you would renovate a house you cannot afford.
Mr. Trudeau criticized a $15 minimum wage, suggesting that it would not impact a significant amount of Canadians. He once again pointed towards his infrastructure plan as generating jobs and strengthening the economy, allowing for more Canadians to afford housing.
Mr. Mulcair was asked about the economic strategy behind raising corporate taxes from 15 to 17 percent, upon which he criticized both the Liberals and Conservatives for giving the country’s “largest and most profitable corporations” tax breaks, which in turn have resulted in the loss of jobs. He expressed that the tax raise would be representative of the country’s largest corporation’s paying their fair share.
To this, Mr. Harper held his stance on keeping a competitive tax environment in order to encourage investment. He criticized the “NDP playbook” of making claims that they will increase corporate tax whilst balancing the budget that results in job loss and poor investment.
Mr. Trudeau spoke to his infrastructure plan as being a solution to the jobs issue. He also referred to his income tax raise to Canada’s highest earners instead of hiking corporate taxes which would result in job loss.
View from the Floor
Global had the opportunity to attend the event. From this unique perspective, we can offer a few additional insights that TV/web viewers may have missed. First, observers have commented on David Walmsley, Editor in Chief of the Globe and Mail’s ability to moderate the often-heated moments of the debate. The configuration of the stage, with Mr. Walmsley standing nearly in-line with the candidates could play a factor in the inability to referee some of the more intense sparring of the evening. For the viewers in the room, with the advantage of being able to see all the speakers at once, the interruptions appeared more natural (although at times just as impolite) than the clips indicated on camera. However, there were certainly a number of occasions where the three leaders were all attempting to speak over one another that made the dialogue as equally impossible to follow regardless of one’s vantage point.
Secondly, the nuances of the leaders’ interactions were interesting. Mr. Mulcair’s jabs at Mr. Trudeau elicited rare moments of humorous audience reaction and Mr. Mulcair referred to Mr. Trudeau as “Justin” several times, as the debate went on. Mr. Harper’s position at the right-hand of the stage allowed him to, at times, simply observe the back and forth between the other two leaders.
The audience was made up of a relatively small group of Calgarians including business community leaders, academics, and local politicians. Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi live-tweeted the debate from his front-row seat. The audience was explicitly asked to not react to the debate or to display any signs of party allegiances.
It is difficult to assume a “winner” or “loser” of this debate, as the events and subsequent media coverage have painted an image of a heated debate without a clear champion. For the undecided, it is hard to imagine that any conclusions came from the debate itself, beyond the talking points and plans that were being conveyed.
Mr. Trudeau was very vocal about his stance on spending in infrastructure while running a deficit in order to stimulate the economy throughout the evening. This prevailing theme of the evening received staunch criticism from both sides. Mr. Harper expressed his view that economic stimulus comes from a competitive tax environment and a balanced budget, while Mr. Mulcair positioned the New Democrats as the moderate option compared to Liberal spending plan. He clearly denounced the Liberals plan to invest in infrastructure while running a deficit as irresponsible and short sighted, while highlighting the NDP plan to modestly invest in infrastructure while balancing the books for the next four years. Mr. Mulcair took an interesting position for the NDP, saying that while Mr. Harper’s plan has not worked and will continue to fail, the Liberal model as being irresponsible for spending in a deficit.