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Canada Election Debate: May Stands Out for Greens as Trudeau Stumbles for Liberals

Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays predictable role and NDP leader Tom Mulcair takes swings

From left to right: Trudeau, May, Mulcair and Harper during the first Canadian leaders’ debate, in Toronto on Thursday. (Photo: Frank Gunn/AFP/Getty Image)

Green Party leader Elizabeth May schooled her opponents in the first leaders debate of the federal election on Thursday, and it's a good thing she did as, so far, it's the only one that will see her debate the other major party leaders.

May was dropping her deep knowledge of a wide range of policy issues and aptly handling the opening question to her on how the Green Party would boost the economy.

"Frankly, we need an army of carpenters, electricians and contractors going out to plug leaky buildings," answered May. "Thirty per cent of carbon pollution comes from the energy we waste, and the money we waste, heating the outdoors in winter and cooling it in the summer."

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he mentioned he needed to be clear on trade deals increasing them from five to 44 countries Canada has trade deals with, NDP leader Tom Mulcair replied with a zinger: "Stephen Harper is the only prime minister in Canadian history who when asked about the recession during his mandate, gets to say 'Which one?'"

May then interjected that the trade deals "[were] to sell us down the river on national sovereignty." May went on to criticize Harper for the new investment treaty with China, which she said, binds Canada until 2045. "Beijing will be looking over the shoulder of the next prime minister and telling us which laws we're allowed to pass."

"Canadians know that times are tough," said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to Harper. "You have completely become disconnected from the reality that people are facing right across this country."

Energy and the environment

When asked about energy policy Harper said, "The federal government does not build pipelines," noting that the government favours a diversification of exports, but that pipeline projects go through an environmental assessment.

Mulcair said Harper's "belligerent, butting heads approach is not working" with First Nations. He said an NDP government "would be a new era in relations with First Nations because they're the resource rulers in a lot of these cases."

Perhaps sensing she could pick up votes in B.C. May went after Mulcair on pipelines, repeatedly asking him if he would oppose the Kinder Morgan project there.

"Opposing these pipelines in advance is just as wrong as supporting them in advance because in both cases what you need is an objective study," replied Mulcair.

"You cannot make a choice between what's good for the environment and what's good for the economy," said Trudeau to Harper.

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National security and foreign policy

Mulcair reminded viewers that the NDP initially did support the combat mission in Libya before later withdrawing its support. On the current mission in Iraq Mulcair said, "a lot of the horrors we are seeing are a direct result of the last misguided war and that, frankly, Canada got it right when we said we would stay out of the 2003 war."

May noted that she was the only MP who voted against the continued bombing of Libya and that the arms of the Gaddafi regime ended up in extremist groups that destabilized the region.

Trudeau said he disagreed with the approach of the Harper government in the war in Iraq and that he supports training missions to help local forces, not combat missions.

"[ISIS] has singled out Canada and Canadians by name and has demonstrated the ability to carry out attacks in countries like ours. It would be absolutely foolish for us not to go after this group before they come after us," said Harper.

"Mr. Harper has failed our veterans by nickel-and-diming them and not giving them the service and help that they need," said Trudeau. "It's something we should all be ashamed of."

Bill C-51

"Mr. Harper wants everyone to be scared that there [are] terrorists hiding behind every leaf and rock. Mr. Mulcair wants us to be scared for our charter and our basic rights and freedoms," said Trudeau, who first opposed Bill C-51 before the Liberals voted in favour of it. "The fact is any Canadian government needs to do them both together."

"We know that the international jihadist movement is a very serious menace to this planet including to this country."

Referring to the testimony of a former MI5 agent May said, "C-51 anti-terrorism act makes us less safe. It is not confronting terrorism. It is very likely to make us less able to disrupt plots, while at the same time eroding our freedoms."

"We have one clear answer to the Canadian voting public. The NDP will repeal Bill C-51," said Mulcair saying that Bill C-51 threatens freedoms for nothing in return as it didn't add tools to existing legislation.

So, who won?

In terms of the debate, May was easily the most dynamic and informed of the leaders and went after them all, but particularly Mulcair with zeal. Every debate organizer should try and get her on their stage as it would increase both the style of the other somewhat tepid debaters and more importantly the substance and depth of the discussion on policy.

Harper and Mulcair kept their cool and played it safe positioning themselves to look as prime ministerial as possible, with Mulcair toning down the usually confrontational manner that he's known for in Question Period.

Trudeau seemed flustered throughout the debate, at one point addressing Harper as "Mr. Mulcair" before correcting himself. In a later mix-up, Trudeau said the liberals would "reduce climate change emissions, Greenhouse gas emissions, and fight climate change." He spoke very quickly and had difficulty making his points.

Trudeau's emotional concluding comments on why he wants to be prime minister stood out, whether you thought they resonated or were horrible probably depends on you, but they were much different from the scripted statements of the other leaders.

There are no clear winners in debates, especially not in a debate this early, as the leaders have different strategies for this long election period. But perhaps this one cut through the haze of summer for Canadians and got them starting to think about who they want to run this country.

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