TORONTO – Call political leaders what you will — especially when they interrupt summer vacation — but the debate Tuesday seemed all about what they call each other.
Justin or Trudeau? Tom or Thomas? Prime minister or Conservative leader?
And they say an election campaign isn’t the time to discuss serious issues.
“I think I use that sometimes, and sometimes I don’t,” a bemused-looking Stephen Harper said Tuesday when asked about his predilection of late for referring to the Liberal leader by his first name.
“That’s how, in our experience, Canadians generally refer to him because that’s how the Liberal party has branded him.”
Conservative officials happily provided unsolicited proof, circulating photos of Trudeau in front of a banner displaying his web address: justin.ca.
The Liberal leader, who was in Mississauga to unveil his campaign bus, shrugged off the name game as a sideshow as he unleashed another broadside against his Conservative rival’s economic record.
“We have a time right now when the economy is struggling, when we’re sliding into recession, where Mr. Harper has shown time and time again that his plan of helping the wealthiest Canadians is not working to grow this economy,” Trudeau said.
“His distraction is working, because I just got two questions on that, rather than on how to build a stronger economy for the future of this country.”
The centrepiece of Harper’s campaign so far came Tuesday in the form of a retooled renovation tax credit — permanent, unlike in 2009, but applicable to only $5,000 of eligible costs, instead of $10,000 — worth $1.5 billion a year.
“Young parents renovated rooms as nurseries, empty-nesters converted rooms for other uses, older Canadians made changes to remain independent in their own homes,” Harper said during an event in Toronto.
“The renovation tax credit helps every homeowner, regardless of income. I know Justin Trudeau doesn’t think every family deserves help, but we do.”
However, there’s a catch: the credit won’t be introduced until Canada finds itself navigating smoother economic waters, likely sometime in the middle of a Conservative mandate, Harper suggested.
Tuesday was unique for other reasons as well, including the fact that it was the first day since the campaign began that the four main party leaders, including Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, were out campaigning at the same time.
After a brief, middling campaign debut on the weekend that included no question-and-answer session, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair resurfaced Tuesday in a Quebec riding that’s become a fulcrum of sorts for the first week of the campaign.
Indeed, the news conference in the riding of Mount Royal, where he first announced his entry into federal politics, felt like a re-do; unlike Sunday, Mulcair looked and sounded energetic, animated and feisty.
He was also happy to answer media queries — including about his name.
“If I’m with my family or long-term friends, I’ve always been Tommy,” he said.
“But I felt that in the NDP, if I started calling myself Tommy, people would say that I was being ambitious compared to one of the founders of this party” — a reference to New Democrat hero and medicare founder Tommy Douglas.
So which is it, Tom or Thomas? “Flip a coin, arm wrestle, do whatever you have to do,” he grinned.
Mulcair was less amused when asked about Trudeau — “the leader of the third party,” he called him — dismissing the NDP’s proposed $15 minimum wage as a “mirage” that wouldn’t apply to 99 per cent of minimum-wage workers in Canada.
“I’m not too sure what that word is supposed to mean, but maybe he could start sharing with us his plan, because nobody knows it,” Mulcair said.
“I want to be a champion for manufacturing. I want to kick-start the economy. I want to start creating full-time, well-paid jobs.”
Duceppe urged Mulcair to clarify his position on the Energy East pipeline project, accusing him of delivering different messages depending on where he is speaking.
Duceppe said the NDP leader came out in support of the pipeline project during a speech in Toronto while saying he opposed it in an interview with L’Actualite magazine, fearing a loss of votes out West.
“Is he for or against?… He has to say that, not only in Quebec, but also when he is campaigning in the West,” Duceppe said.
“You can’t be for and against at the very same time.”
The Bloc leader was speaking in Vaudreuil-Dorion, just off the western tip of the island of Montreal and one of the communities the controversial pipeline would cross.
Mulcair said no energy project can be approved without a thorough and credible environmental evaluation, but added the notion of bringing oil from west to east could “accomplish a lot of positive things.”