Eight must-see moments from the Maclean’s debate

The big exchanges from the Maclean’s Debate, and all the charts and context you need to explain what they mean


Photograph by Dillan Cools

They never let up. From the opening clashes on the economy, through a round on energy and the environment, into an intense section on democracy, and a finishing flurry of exchanges on foreign and security issues—the four national leaders made the two hours of the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate fly by. The mythical knock-out punch may not have been landed, but the debate provided plenty of choices for anyone’s highlights reel. Here are ours: eight memorable moments, complete with expert reaction collected as the debate unfolded.

1. Mulcair zings Harper on recessions

The quote

Thomas Mulcair: “Well, you know, Stephen Harper is the only prime minister in Canadian history who, when asked about the recession during his mandate, gets to say, ‘Which one?’ He’s just admitted that we’ve had five months of negative growth in a row and, yes, a lot of experts say we already are in a recession.”

The context

Seasoned political observers were all waiting for two factors to emerge in this debate: first, clashes on the economy, where every leader wants to appeal to voters. And second, Mulcair firing the sort of zingers at Harper to which we’ve grown accustomed in their question period exchanges. This line from the NDP leader fulfills both expectations. Mulcair alludes to both the 2008 recession and Harper’s admission, a moment earlier, that the economy has contracted this year, although the Prime Minister specified that only the energy sector has slumped, while “the rest of the economy is growing.”

The expert

“Unemployment has been hovering at about seven per cent for a while. This isn’t horrendous, but it’s still one per cent above the pre-recession level. Median incomes have very different trajectories, depending on whom you are talking about—not just regional differences. Single parents, for example, haven’t recovered to pre-2008 levels.”—Jennifer Robson, Carleton University economics professor

The data

Harper has presided over two economic slumps since taking office in 2006.


2. Harper and May spar over emissions

The exchange

Stephen Harper: “Not only do we take both the economy and the environment seriously, we are the first government in history to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also growing our economy . . .”

Elizabeth May: “With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, the only way you can take credit for the emissions drop, which only occurred in 2008 and ’09, is the global financial crisis.”

The context

It seemed inevitable that the debate section on energy and the environment would put Harper and May on a collision course. This exchange features Harper making an assertion often repeated by the Conservatives, and May crisply framing a rejoinder. The greenhouse gas emissions issue seems likely to grow more pressing as the campaign goes on, since whoever forms a new government after Oct. 19 will soon have to stake out a new position for Canada at a key United Nations conference on climate change scheduled for early December in Paris.

The expert

“While there has been some success in decoupling emissions growth from economic growth, it has not been systematic yet, and is not sufficient to meet Canada’s 2020 climate goal of 17 per cent reduction from 2005 levels.”—David McLaughlin, University of Waterloo strategic adviser on sustainability

The data

Environment Canada projects provincial emission cuts outweighing federal measures.


3. May and Mulcair on a hot B.C. issue

The exchange

Elizabeth May: “But do you oppose the pipeline? Do you oppose the pipeline and the tankers?”

Thomas Mulcair: “See, here’s the difference. Opposing these pipelines systematically in advance is just as wrong as supporting them—”

Elizabeth May: “So you’re prepared—”

Thomas Mulcair: “—in advance, because, in both cases, what you need is an objective study.”

The context

This was part of a longer give-and-take between May and Mulcair, which also briefly involved Harper, about the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline in British Columbia. The exchange stood out, because it drew attention to May’s home province, where she has her best hope of adding another Green seat. For Mulcair, the danger of being outflanked on the controversial pipeline is that Green votes might pull away enough potential NDP support to give the Conservatives or Liberals hope in some B.C. ridings where four-way races are a possibility.

The expert

“Some feel that if climate policy were in place, Keystone would have been approved. Others feel that the ship has sailed on climate change, and that very little Canada does can address this, since the world is moving too fast to the two-degrees-Celsius 2050 climate goal—and that we now need to keep oil sands reserves in the ground.”—David McLaughlin, University of Waterloo strategic adviser on sustainability

The data

With pipeline projects stalled, more oil is moving by rail.


4. Harper and Trudeau on Obama and McGuinty

The exchange

Stephen Harper: “You know, a moment ago, they talked about landmark decisions by the Obama administration in the United States. They’re pushing ahead with coal, with national regulations of coal-fired electricity. We did that in Canada three years ago across several provinces—”

Justin Trudeau: “Mr. Harper, you did not do that.”

Stephen Harper: “We did that in concert with the provinces—”

Justin Trudeau: “It was the Ontario government that worked very hard to do that—”

Stephen Harper: “—in Ontario, in Alberta, in Saskatchewan—”

Justin Trudeau: “—and you were blocking them—”

Stephen Harper: “—in Nova Scotia—”

Justin Trudeau: “—at every turn.”

Stephen Harper: “—and that’s why, the reason we have the cleanest—”

Justin Trudeau: “Mr. Harper, nobody believes you on the environment.”

The context

Consider the political cross-currents swirling just beneath this exchange, in which Harper takes credit for cutting Canada’s emissions from coal-fired electricity generation, and Trudeau pushes back, and Harper claiming to have moved earlier on this front than Barack Obama’s Democratic administration in Washington, which is popular with Canadian Liberals. Even more politically sensitive with Trudeau, though, is Harper’s bid to take credit over the Ontario Liberal government, which moved to phase out coal generation in the province. Trudeau’s most trusted strategist is Gerald Butts, who was a top aide to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, who brought in the policy of getting rid of coal-fired generating stations in the province.

The expert

“Harper’s sector-by-sector approach has had some success on auto regulations, but little on other sectors, as they have either not yet been introduced—think oil and gas—or have been reduced via provincial, not federal, actions, such as Ontario’s role in closing coal-fired electricity plants. That remains the single-biggest action reducing emissions in Canada to date.”—David McLaughlin, University of Waterloo strategic adviser on sustainability

The data

The lion’s share of Canadian emissions cuts come from ending coal-fired electricity.


5. Mulcair demands a number, Trudeau obliges

The exchange

Thomas Mulcair: “What’s the number, Justin?”

Justin Trudeau: “—why is your policy so reckless? You want a number, Mr. Mulcair?”

Thomas Mulcair: “Yeah, give us a number.”

Justin Trudeau: “I’ll give you a number: nine. My number is nine. Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country, and yet, that is Mr. Mulcair’s position. He wants to be prime minister of this country, and he’s choosing to side with the separatist movement in Quebec and not with the Supreme Court of Canada.”

The context

Here’s the clearest reminder of the night that the NDP and Liberal leaders are both from Montreal. Trudeau has challenged Mulcair over the NDP’s position that 50 per cent plus one would be a sufficient vote in any future Quebec referendum for the separatist side to win. Mulcair tries to pin Trudeau down to his number for a margin of victory. And Trudeau, clearly ready for this attack, comes back fiercely with his answer: the number of judges on the Supreme Court of Canada who ruled in a landmark reference case that a simple majority would not be enough to trigger negotiations to break up Canada.

The expert

“This part of the debate shows the precarious balance between legal/constitutional boundaries and political realities. I wasn’t anticipating that it would raise its head so soon. I feel like I’m back in the ’90s!”—Carissima Mathen, University of Ottawa law professor

The data

A clear win, and then a squeaker, in Quebec’s two referendums.


6. Harper asks why anyone’s talking separation

The quote

Stephen Harper: “Why bring up a debate of the Clarity Act, other than to satisfy the separatist elements within the NDP in Quebec? Nobody’s talking about that. You know, we just had Quebecers massively reject that agenda. Nobody wants to raise this. Why would we go down the route of talking about how we, how we can best break up the country, when, in fact, Quebecers clearly do not want to do that? I just don’t understand it.”

The context

Following closely on that clash between Mulcair and Trudeau about a hypothetical future referendum, Harper intervenes with a plea for just leaving the issue alone. It was, arguably, his most effective bid to turn the rivalry between the Liberal and NDP leaders to his clear advantage. There can be little doubt that Harper’s exasperation must be shared by many Canadians who have no stomach for a return to the national unity anxieties of the 1980s and 1990s. If Trudeau briefly seemed to have come out on top with his rhetorically stirring “My number is nine” line, Harper’s exasperated plea may have succeeded in ruining the moment for Liberals.

The expert

“It’s true that the terrible constitutional hangovers are in the past, and I think the dissemination of information is so much more sophisticated. I’m not convinced that constitutional negotiations are the bogeyman they are constantly made out to be.”—Carissima Mathen, University of Ottawa law professor

The data

Last year, Quebecers voted overwhelmingly federalist.


7. Harper makes his case for bombing Islamic State

The quote

Stephen Harper: “I don’t think this government’s actually got involved in very many military actions, but we are certainly involved in one now against ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria . . . It 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, not to go after this group before they come after us.”

The context

Harper came into office in 2006 with almost no credentials on foreign or defence issues. Yet he often seems most sure-footed on these files now. In part, it’s because any sitting prime minister has the advantage of having been seen to represent the country on the world stage—the sort of experience opposition leaders can hardly duplicate. But it’s also partly because Harper sounds particularly sure of himself on matters of security. Of course, the substance of the positions he adopts can always be debated. But his style on foreign threats, as he shows here, tends to be reassuringly resolute.

The expert

“The question for the NDP leader will be whether the party can come forward with an independent foreign policy for Canada, rather than a criticism of the government’s approach. To link the current situation in the Middle East to the Iraq war of 2003 may not be very insightful or constructive.”—Wesley Wark, national security expert

The data

A bombing campaign begun in controversy continues.


8. Trudeau changes the subject to veterans

The quote

Justin Trudeau: “The other thing is, if we are going to send our troops overseas, we need to make sure we are properly taking care of them when they come home. And Mr. Harper has failed our veterans by nickel-and-diming them, by not giving them the service, the help that they need. And it’s something that we should all be ashamed of, that this government, which likes to wrap itself in the flag, is actually not caring for those people who have fought, injured themselves . . .”

The context

This is actually the second half of a Trudeau answer that started out with him defending his controversial opposition to the Harper government’s decision to send Canadians jets into bombing missions against Islamic State in Iraq. In one of his smooth pivots away from danger during the debate, Trudeau decided to change topics. He shifted attention from combat to treatment of veterans—a topic that has plagued the Conservatives. Although the Tories say they have increased spending for veterans overall, they have faced continuous bitter complaints from veterans and their families about cuts to front-line services.

The expert

“Both the Liberals and NDP want a thoughtful approach to a strategic response to the Islamic State challenge. But they need to say more about what that thoughtful process should be. Mr. Trudeau attempted to change the channel to treatment of veterans. Harper was having none of it.”—Wesley Wark, national security expert

The data

Despite complaints about service cuts, veterans’ spending rose overall.



Eight must-see moments from the Maclean’s debate

  1. I covered the entire debate last night (minute by minute) for the CBC commentaries , because this public broadcaster was disqualified to air campaign debates due to it’s past political partisanship activities.

    At an rate the five things that other candidate than Harper need to learn are;

    1-BE COHERENT about your OWN position. Barking at Harper makes you look like you don’t understand why his government has been successful for so long.

    2-Be concise. Don’t mix your responses with your barks about Harper. Canadians are not stupid. They already KNOW Harper’s track record. They just want to hear YOURS.

    3-If you claim to want to create 40,000 jobs, (Mulcair and Junior), then explain to us not only HOW you will do this but also where you will find the money to do it with.

    4-If you are Liz May, then you may want to look into explaining WHY canadians need to elect you.

    5-BE CALM. We don’t like you BUTTING IN because the MODERATOR at McLean’s did not do enough to prevent that last night, so try to govern yourself. You will look much more appealing.

    Personal note to Junior;
    Work at you voice. Make it a couple of notches more masculine.

    See you all at the next debate.

    • Well done.
      I didn’t realize I was reading satire till the end, ” Make it a couple of notches more masculine.”

  2. I was very pleased to see all four party leaders in this debate. Irregardless of Elizabeth May’s ability to garner enough votes to become Prime Minister, she is an experienced politician and brings a unique perspective, not to mention that she is a woman. We are sorely lacking gender equality in this electoral debate overall. I wholeheartedly support this kind of exposure to the candidates rather than the ridiculously insulting ads from the Conservatives against Mr. Trudeau. I really only want to hear what the candidates believe in and what we can expect from their leadership – not their critical opinions of the other candidates, especially when those criticisms are not constructive or helpful in any way shape or form. I went into the debate with a solid foot in the NDP camp – largely because of the candidate in my riding and I must say that I will NOT be voting for Mr. Harper now or in any lifetime of mine. He and his government have systematically undermined the very values we hold dear as Canadians. I am mortified that Mr. Harper hails from the same city as I was born. Having said that, I was more moved by both Mr. Trudeau and Ms. May because of what I consider to be a much more honest approach and I felt more integrity from both of them. Personally, I don’t think we really have a candidate for Prime Minister with the exact right set of leadership skills necessary for greatness but I would rather put my faith in someone who can be honest with me and uphold the values we Canadians hold dear. Canadians deserve this and the world needs the kind of leadership we used to show. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    • I don’t see campaigning – I see a Prime minister visiting a national wildfire hotspot along with the premier of the province. What a stretch!!
      Along with Emily I don’t watch debates as they are for no-minds. But what I read in this post is that Harper is up against pretty poor opposition. And Elizabeth May should go back to jokes and stories.

      As an aside, Harper has been resolute ion tot harming our economy by unilateral moves until he sees other countries making those moves to0. If you want a bad economy, just do what the enviros want. While I am not a naysayer on the human causes (ever since agriculture and cows pooping reared their ugly heads (or behinds) but there are also massive natural influences that have also a great deal of influence and which the fancy computer programs can’t handle because they are unpredictable.

      • Corrections and additions: should read “in not harming”. Also, movement now seems to be starting by US and Russia who are by far, along with China recently, the biggest coal polluters, making the oil sands look like a kid’s sand box. ,

  3. Why did Maclean’s (and the rest of the media) let Harper walk away from the scrum? If he wants to lead this great country (again) he should stand and answer Canadian’s questions. Most Canadians still get their news from main stream media and Harper should not be allowed to dictate when and where he chooses to speak to us. Will you call him out on this?

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