Trade, Energy and Finance Dominate Third Canada Election Debate

  • Mulcair and Trudeau attack Harper in French-language session
  • Tight three-way race makes unstable minority government likely

Canada’s political leaders sparred over trade, pipelines and credit cards in the first French-language debate of an election campaign that remains locked in a tight three-way race.

The Montreal session pit Prime Minister Stephen Harper against New Democratic Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May of the Green Party and Gilles Duceppe of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

Mulcair took the stage as frontrunner in Quebec, Canada’s main French-speaking province where his party broke through in the 2011 election. However it was Harper -- who has held a slight lead in the polls over the past week -- who was on the defensive throughout.

“We have the leadership and experience to replace Stephen Harper with a government that is more like us and brings us together,” Mulcair said during the televised debate, held at the headquarters of Radio-Canada.

It was the third of five debates in the campaign for Canada’s Oct. 19 election, its longest since 1872. The latest national averages compiled by polling aggregator show the Conservatives at 31 percent, the Liberals at 30 percent and the NDP at 29 percent. Based on those projections, the Conservatives are on pace for a minority government, though both the Trudeau and Mulcair have said they won’t prop up Harper -- raising the prospect of uncertainty extending beyond voting day.

Trade Talks

The incumbent Conservative defended ongoing Pacific Rim trade talks when pressed by Duceppe, who called on Harper to prevent any change to Canada’s protectionist system of tariffs and quotas in the dairy sector, known as supply management.

“The Trans Pacific Partnership is an opportunity for Canada to become a partner in a market with 800 million potential clients,” Harper said of the 12-nation talks, which continue next week in Atlanta. “We’re defending all sectors in these negotiations.”

The party leaders also sparred on pipelines and oil transport in a province that was the site of a train derailment and explosion in 2013 that killed 47 people.

Pipelines, Environment

Harper defended the current system of environmental reviews and said his rivals were taking positions “contrary” to those of a debate the previous week, conducted in English and held in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s oil industry. He also argued in favor of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL project after Mulcair criticized it on the basis it would export unrefined oil and therefore cost Canadians jobs.

“Exports create jobs on both sides, in both countries. That’s why we encourage exports. This is the NDP’s protectionist ideology,” Harper replied said.

Trudeau criticized Harper’s record on getting pipelines built. Canada’s four major pipeline projects are all stalled or facing delays, with environmental criticism underpinning opposition to the projects. “Mr. Harper has demonstrated that he doesn’t understand that, in the 21st century, the environment and the economy go together hand in hand,” Trudeau said.

Deficit vs. Balance

Mulcair underscored his labor-friendly party’s pledge of a balanced budget in contrast to Trudeau, whose Liberals have vowed to double infrastructure funding by running deficits in a bid to revive Canada’s stagnant economy. Mulcair also repeated a pledge to cap interest rates on credit cards, though did not specify the level.

“The NDP does have a plan to limit the interest rate that you can levy on credit cards,” Mulcair said. The party’s website calls for “no-frills credit cards” with an interest rate of “no more than 5 percent over the prime rate.”

Harper criticized Mulcair’s plan to increase corporate taxes by two percentage points. “This does not balance the budget,” the prime minister said. “It eliminates jobs.”

The five leaders also sparred over the wearing of the Muslim face-covering niqab, particularly during citizenship ceremonies; Canada’s bombing mission against Islamic State militants; its multi-billion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia; and the fate of Canada’s scandal-plagued Senate.

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