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Harper Fends Off Spending Attacks in Canada Election Debate

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photographer: Norm Betts/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent much of Canada’s televised debate last night fending off opposition attacks that he’s misspent public funds and undermined the country’s finances with business tax reductions.

Harper, and leaders of the Liberal, New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois parties, squared off over the economy, health care, crime, international affairs, and immigration at a government conference center in Ottawa.

Harper, 51, countered the criticism by saying opposition parties triggered elections unnecessarily, adding the tax cuts were approved by Parliament four years ago and their reversal would undermine the nation’s economic outlook. A French-language debate will be held tonight.

Canada “is emerging from this recession stronger and faster than just about anyone,” Harper said. “That’s what we need Parliament to focus on. That’s why we’re asking for a renewed mandate.”

At stake in the vote is leadership of the world’s 10th-largest economy, which grew at the fastest pace among Group of Seven nations in the fourth quarter. Canada’s currency has been the strongest in the G-7 over the past two years. Government bonds have returned 4.6 percent over the past year as of April 11, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data, compared with a 2.7 percent average for the G-7.

Key Message

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, 63, has yet to shrink the roughly 10 percentage-point lead that Harper has held through the campaign, which began March 26. He kept to his key message last night, attacking Harper for agreeing to buy 65 of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jets, building “mega-prisons” and moving ahead with corporate tax cuts.

Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also sought to question Harper’s integrity, aiming to take advantage of a parliamentary finding last month that held the governing Conservatives in “contempt” of the House of Commons for withholding information.

“Mr. Harper, we’re having an election because you couldn’t tell the truth to the Parliament of Canada because of the money you’re going to spend on jets, jails and corporate tax giveaways,” Ignatieff said.

Conservative Lead

Polls suggest the Conservatives would win the most seats in the election, although it isn’t clear if they would win a majority. The Conservatives were supported by 39.7 percent of decided voters, followed by 31.2 percent who supported the Liberals, according to a CTV/Globe/Nanos election survey published yesterday. The telephone survey of 1,200 people was conducted April 10-12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.

Harper, who has been prime minister since 2006, won 38 percent of the vote in 2008 elections, which gave the Conservatives 143 seats in the 308-member House of Commons. He has never held a majority of seats in the Parliament.

In an online poll of 2,365 viewers conducted by Ipsos Reid last night, 42 percent said Harper won the debate, followed by 25 percent for New Democratic Leader Jack Layton and 23 percent for Ignatieff. Harper and Layton did better than was expected, according to the poll, while Ignatieff failed to improve on pre-debate expectations.

“The prime minister simply had to get through the debate and I think he did,” Ipsos pollster John Wright said in a telephone interview. “Not a lot of minds were changed tonight.”

Misused Funds

The format of the debate had the four party leaders in a semi-circle, standing in front of podiums. Questions were submitted by Canadians and videotaped earlier. Harper rarely looked at the other leaders while responding to questions, speaking to the camera and the television audience.

The three opposition leaders often ganged up on the Conservative leader over media articles that cited a draft report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, which said the government misused funds hosting last year’s Group of Eight nations leaders’ summit.

“This wasn’t stimulus; this was just scattering money around to build gazebos and fake lakes, and Canadians don’t have confidence in your management because you waste public money,” Ignatieff said. Harper said all funds were fully accounted for.

Fraser, in a statement released April 11, said she is prohibited from releasing her report on costs associated with last year’s G-8 leaders’ summit until Parliament resumes.

NDP Mandate

New Democratic Leader Jack Layton, 60, whose party held 36 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons, said both of the main parties have failed Canadians and urged voters to give him a mandate to run the country.

“You have a choice, contrary to what some might try to suggest,” Layton said. “You’ve got a great chance to exercise that choice by voting New Democrat.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, 63, who runs a regional party that runs candidates only in the French-speaking province, said Quebec voters need to stop the Conservatives from forming a majority.

“The Bloc is still the only party in Quebec able to stop Stephen Harper,” Duceppe said.

About two hours before the debate began, about 200 supporters of the various parties gathered in front of Ottawa’s Government Conference Centre, trading chants and mostly good-natured insults.

A Green Party supporter, Anika Sparling, stood in front of the hall with a piece of duct tape over her mouth to symbolize the exclusion of party leader Elizabeth May from the debate. Sparling, 20, removed the tape long enough to give her name, age, home town of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and say that she was a student at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

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