Harper forced to defend economic, energy policies in first leaders debate

The four people vying to be Canada’s next Prime Minister spent much of Thursday night poking holes in each others’ platforms, and less time promoting their own.

Much of the verbal melee was a three-on-one as the people vying to be Canada’s next prime minister spent most of the first debate attacking the incumbent’s record on the economy, energy and the environment.

The first debate of the 2015 campaign focused on the economy, the senate, Canada’s role overseas and the balance of security with Charter-protected freedoms.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper was put on the defensive in the midst of a shaky economic outlook.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair all pointed out that Canada’s economy has shrunk over the first five months of 2015, leaving Canada’s economy teetering on recession.

Story continues below advertisement

“Stephen Harper is the only prime minister in Canadian history that, when asked about the recession during his mandate, gets to say ‘Which one’?” Mulcair said.

READ MORE: What you need to know as leaders trade jabs on the economy

Harper defended himself, maintaining his government expects a surplus this year (though the Parliamentary Budget Office says that’s not likely) even as he admitted Canada might be headed for a recession, and noting much of the economic contraction was limited to the energy sector.

“Admission is the best form of evidence,” Mulcair quipped to reporters afterward, saying he thinks his first debate as party leader was enjoyable and allowed the NDP to prove it’s capable of governing.

WATCH: Day after first debate, Mulcair says NDP has experience to defeat Stephen Harper

Harper’s opponents also took aim at his policies, particularly income splitting for families with young children under 18 years old, which Trudeau called “writing cheques for millionaires.”

Story continues below advertisement

Bill C-51, Harper’s anti-terrorism bill, was the final topic of the night. Mulcair and May slammed the bill, which faces constitutional challenges over allegations it violates Canadians’ Charter rights. May said the bill “makes us less safe.”

And Trudeau was obliged to defend his support of the bill, saying his party would amend it significantly if it forms government.

“We supported that legislation because there was specific elements in there that immediately and concretely protect Canadian security, and we’re committed to repealing the problematic elements that have been highlighted and actually bringing in the proper oversight,” Trudeau said. But he admitted perhaps it was “naïve” to support the bill “at a time of politics of attack and division.”

Harper, for his part, defended the bill, saying it allows security organizations to share information on terrorist threats and intervene before plots develop. (Critics have argued it gives security agencies too much power without adequate oversight, and note that law enforcement and investigators don’t use many of the post-9/11 powers they already have.)

The leaders weren’t able to agree on much: Is Canada “technically” in a recession? (Technically, yes, albeit a small one.)

Will Canada meet its 2020 goals for greenhouse gas emissions? (Probably not.)

Do Americans support TransCanada’s KeystoneXL pipeline? (Many of those in its path do not.)

Story continues below advertisement

Should the senate be reformed? (Mulcair wants abolition; Harper says he won’t appoint more senators. Strictly speaking, both of those stances may be unconstitutional.)

REALITY CHECK: Does the NDP minimum wage plan leave out 99% of minimum wage earners?

Harper and May accused both Trudeau and Mulcair of talking out of both sides of their mouths on pipeline policy – provisionally supporting such projects as Energy East in the West, while opposing them in Quebec.

It’s tough to name a debate “winner” before the next round of polls, said University of Toronto politics professor Nelson Wiseman.

But Wiseman noted the habitually pugilistic Mulcair’s ability to stay calm and on-message may have helped him.

“I don’t think opinion is going to shift all that much, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NDP actually picks up a bit. Mulcair is the leading alternative at this stage to Harper and he didn’t falter [but] as I say, I thought he was relatively weak in the final couple of minutes.”

The third segment of the night took a turn for the wonky, focusing on Canada’s parliamentary democracy and the senate.

There was even a brief imbroglio over the Clarity Act and Quebec’s potential secession, with Trudeau accusing Mulcair of supporting a simple majority in deciding Quebec secession.

Story continues below advertisement

“No prime minister should make it easier for Quebec to separate from Canada,” Trudeau said.

Harper faced heavy criticism from Trudeau over Harper’s appointment of 59 unelected senators, despite his vow before becoming prime minister not to.

Some of those 59 senators, such as Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau, have faced investigations and expense scandals.

The Conservative leader defended his actions, saying he appointed Senators only because he had to, to keep government running.

He also sought to minimize the misdeeds of his appointees.

“First of all, I certainly did not name all of the senators that are in trouble. The senate has been an institution that has these kind of problems for 150 years,” Harper said.

“I’d say for the first time we actually have a senate that actually has clear rules and is enforcing those rules.”