National Affairs Column: Treading lightly as all three smell victory

by Tim Harper

If Stephen Harperís goal was to spook Canadians about handing our economy to one of the “other guys,” he missed an opportunity Thursday evening.

That doesnít mean that an often noisy 90-minute debate, with too much time spent with opponents talking over each other, was a breakout night for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

But no one need be frightened, at least based on this encounter in Calgary, that someone other than Harper might get the keys to the treasury Oct. 19.

And why would anyone be spooked?

The economic differences between the trio – “modest deficits” run up by Trudeau; four years of surplus fuelled by raising corporate tax rates and killing an income-splitting program by Mulcair; or steady-as-she goes balanced budgets and targeted tax breaks by Harper – can really be measured in rounding errors.

A historic three-way battle may make for epic horse race stories, but it also invites caution, because all three men can smell victory.

To get a touch visionary or to offer anything sweeping and untested, or even peek outside the conventional box, is seen as a risk when everyone is within a point of each other in the polls.

This exercise lasted less than 90 minutes but featured too many numbers, acronyms and inside spin that must have frustrated anyone seeking an answer to the questions causing anxiety in this country – is my job secure and will my kids be able to find work?

For Canadians just tuning in, it could only be more confusing hearing the ever more centrist Mulcair sound like a Conservative on fiscal matters, claiming balanced budgets are in the NDP DNA, while Trudeau outflanked him on the left, talking about taxing the rich and spending slightly beyond our means to create infrastructure and jobs.

Harper tried to paint Mulcair with the old socialist brush even as the man standing suitably in the middle sounded closer to Bay St. than Main St.

The Conservative leader referred to the “old NDP playbook” of spending on the back of big corporations and a few rich people that only results in job losses. It happened in British Columbia, he said, it is happening in Manitoba and Alberta and, of course, Harper had to add it happened in Ontario, even if Bob Rae was elected here more than 25 years ago. There is no statute of limitations on the Rae bogeyman.

Harper said Trudeau didn’t fall in love with deficit financing based on principle, but did so because he went around the country promising things that cost more money than he had.

“High taxes and permanent deficits do not create jobs,” Harper said.

Virtually every day he has come to work as prime minister, Harper said, he has had to deal with a banking crisis, a sovereign debt crisis, a housing crisis, market chaos in China or falling oil prices and has
dealt with them with long-term planning.

These may be effective debating points, but Canadians do not fear deficits, as long as they are not massive, and Trudeau accused Harper of only balancing the budget in election years. Mulcair’s corporate tax hikes are modest and overdue, and still lower than the average rate over the length of the Harper reign. Canadians instinctively understand our economic future is often out of the hands of our leaders.

Trudeau, however, was still forced by Mulcair to join him and Harper in worshipping the balanced budget with the Liberal leader telling Canadians, “We said we are committed to balanced budgets and we are. We will balance that budget in 2019.”

If there is more nuance than substantive gulfs between the three men, and this is a change election, than it was up to Mulcair and Trudeau to connect with the audience.

If anyone still thinks Trudeau cannot debate on the same stage as the other two men, they are dealing with historical perceptions.

The Liberal leader was effective in stepping back and asking the bigger questions about whether Canadians were better off than they were 10 years ago – Harper countered by asking, “where would you rather have spent the past 10 years?” – and accused his two opponents of lacking ambition.

“If you think things are great, Mr. Harper is your guy,” Trudeau said.

If he has a fault, it is that he still runs through his points too quickly and aggressively.

Mulcair, on the other hand, tried hard – maybe too hard – to be calm, as if he were the only adult on the stage, certainly not the pretender from the third party or the discredited adversary who needs to be tossed from office.

Trudeau has two planks that polling data shows has support – his deficit plan and his vow to tax the top one per cent of income earners to help the middle class.

Ironically, both would normally be NDP planks. There are still doubts about Trudeauís readiness to govern, while Mulcair is not burdened by the same level of doubt.

One can only wonder if Mulcair had hewn closer to traditional NDP policy and not allowed Trudeau to stake out what should be his turf, whether the NDP leader would be putting distance between himself
and his opponents by now.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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