OTTAWA – They were supposed to be looking out onto the world, but the three federal party leaders debating foreign policy had their eyes firmly fixed closer to home.
The policy mechanics of trade negotiations, climate change, immigration and refugee measures and security legislation gave way Monday to a spirited battle of emotions and values aimed at loosening up votes in a seemingly endless election campaign that’s still too close to call.
For Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, the debate before a crowd of nearly 3,000 at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall was all about ensuring Canadian security — of person and of economy.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair wanted to make it a question of Canadian values — the ones that built a country of immigrants.
And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau played to nostalgia and emotion, invoking the ghost of his prime minister father and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Let me say very clearly, I am incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s son,” said Trudeau, before citing the Charter, multiculturalism and bilingualism as inheritances the country can take pride in.
Trudeau added that the evening was emotional because it marked the 15th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s death. “And I know he wouldn’t want us to be fighting the battles of the past; he’d want us squarely focused on the future and how we’re going to respond to Canadians’ needs, and that’s what we’re doing tonight.”
The sentiment might not change a vote at the United Nations, but Liberals likely hope it swings a few more voters their way — especially in seat-rich Ontario.
Trudeau wasn’t the only leader playing to the bleachers.
Harper stoutly defended his government’s policies to date on accepting Syrian refugees.
“We haven’t opened the floodgates,” he said. “Some European countries just started letting everybody in and now they’re trying to reverse those policies.”
Harper noted that the process has been sped up, “while maintaining our security and not literally spending tens of millions of additional dollars. And these are the numbers we’ve arrived at. We’re not chasing headlines.”
Harper’s repeated invocation of headline-hunting opposition parties earned a stern rebuke from Mulcair. Helping the world’s most vulnerable is not headline-chasing, scolded the New Democrat.
“For a prime minister of Canada to say that trying to help the most needy of the earth, help people fleeing a tragedy on a scale not seen since the Second World War, anybody fighting to take more of them in to Canada and to help them is somehow chasing headlines — I find that’s disrespectful,” said Mulcair.
“It is disrespectful to Canadians and to Canadian values.”
Trudeau also got in a dig, saying Harper “wants us to be afraid that there’s a terrorist hiding behind any leaf and rock around us, and we all need to be afraid.”
The debate, the fourth of five during the extraordinarily long, 78-day election campaign, was also remarkable for the capacity crowd of close to 3,000 paying — and occasionally partisan — patrons.
Despite rules against cheering, the large live audience helped animate the well-paced debate with applause and laughter and even a heckle or two.
A battle over federal stewardship of the economy was supposed to be this election’s defining issue, but emotive “values” questions have increasingly dominated the discourse.
Those values have been attached to the country’s place in the world: Canada’s handling of an international Syrian refugee crisis; the place of minority religious face coverings at citizenship ceremonies; and rescinding Canadian citizenship from convicted terrorists who hold dual citizenship.
On Syrian refugees, Trudeau drew applause when he named nearby Ireland Park in Toronto, where he said 38,000 Irish arrived in 1847 fleeing the potato famine. They arrived to a city of 20,000 citizens.
Harper, meanwhile, took both Trudeau and Mulcair to task for over their stated aim of ending the Canadian bombing mission against Islamic militants in Syria, known as ISIS.
“Imagine, first day of office, that we would have a prime minister who would say to the United States we are pulling out of the joint military mission against the Islamic state. And why? Because you Mr. Obama are continuing the polices of George W. Bush,” Harper said.
“Seriously, if you really want to poison the relationship, that would be the way to do it.”
Harper also ripped into his opponents over his government’s ongoing — and reportedly nearly complete — negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
“You don’t get those deals by coming up with a million reasons why you’re against them before you even get to the table and why you should walk away once you’re there,” he said.
Mulcair had an opportunity for his own two-front offensive, blasting both Harper’s Conservatives and the Liberals who preceded them in office for not giving Canada a comprehensive policy to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.
Harper responded that his government has been consistent in stating any international protocol requires all countries to sign on and that he’s “very optimistic” the world will reach an historic accord in December when international negotiations take place in Paris.
The last leaders’ debate takes place Friday in Montreal, sponsored by the French-language network TVA.