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Martin Fails to Undermine Harper

Tonight's debate was certainly better than the previous, and you can give the credit to the changes in format and the moderator, Steve Paikin. Debate transcript here.

Calgary Grit was live blogging it, and has scores of comments from others. Warren Kinsella was live-blogging it too. His version is funnier, but you're going to have some trouble sorting out the order of things. Actually, there were many live bloggers, including two at Tilting at Windmills. The Globe and Mail editorial board ran their own chat room.

Earlier today I wrote that "tonight's debate might be Martin's last chance". If that's true, I think I would predict a slim Harper minority.

I think Paul Martin did a decent job tonight... a better one than last time... but I don't think he did much to disrupt the momentum away from his government and towards change. Quite importantly, Harper didn't do much that was scary. He reiterated his five-point plan and claimed that his tax cut is better for low-income Canadians than Paul Martin's. Whether he gained or lost support tonight, I don't think events transpired that would terrify Canadians waking up to the idea that he might win.

Very early in the debate Stephen Harper mentioned the "Toronto waterfront" as a current scandal facing the Liberals. I have heard very little about it, but it turns out it was reported on Christmas Eve that some irregularities in the tendering of Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp contracts are being investigated. I don't know enough about it yet to have an opinion.

Paul Martin's notwithstanding clause promise was desperate and dumb. I don't believe the notwithstanding clause is a real threat to rights in Canada because the political consequences of using it would seem to be so grave. However, there may be potentially valid uses for it. One that I would support is the situation where Paul Martin himself said he would use it: if the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that churches must perform same-sex marriages, even if they oppose them. (Of course, the SCC would never rule that way.) It was reported on CBC that of all the debaters tonight, Paul Martin is the only one who has ever said he would use the notwithstanding clause.

Martin says he would remove the notwithstanding clause power only from the federal government! The provinces can just go on blocking our Charter rights without problem. This is bizarre. And Paul Martin calls himself a federalist?

Calgary Grit reports: "It turns out Paul is only proposing a bill on this in the House, limited to federal jurisdiction. In that respect, I don't have a huge problem with it, but it still comes across looking like a hail mary." However, if it isn't a constitutional amendment it has no teeth whatsoever. Zero. Zip. Nada.

All it would mean is that a government that wishes to use the notwithstanding clause would have to (a) repeal Martin's law, and (b) invoke the notwithstanding clause. All that stops them from doing this is political pressure... which already restrains them anyway.

Although I'm not a huge fan of Stephen Harper's GST cut, he was making sense when he said it is the tax cut that best helps low-income people. If it is true that 30% of Canadians have income that is so low that they pay no income tax, obviously these people will benefit from the Harper plan, not Martin's income tax cut. Fact checkers on CBC agreed that this is true and that Harper's total tax cut looks to be just a bit larger than Martin's.

Interestingly, it sounds like the only tax cuts Harper will be promising during this campaign are the GST cut and the targeted tax breaks for transit users, trades people, etc. That doesn't mean he can't bring in more tax cuts later. However, this batch would seem to be affordable and surprisingly fair. That's not to say that they are ideal policy, but that so far they are not unreasonable.

Harper says he likes the Charter just fine... except that he wants to add property rights to it. Here's a backgrounder on that.

Does anyone besides me find that Gilles Duceppe's position on the fiscal imbalance is full of holes? Ian Welsh has been arguing that both Duceppe and Harper want to cut taxes at the federal level and transfer that tax room to the provinces. Welsh says, correctly, that the flaw in this is -- if done on a large enough scale -- that it simply leaves poor provinces without the resources required for programs necessary to maintain our standard of living.

But... Duceppe doesn't always behave as if he really wants to walk that talk. It sounds like he really just wants more transfers from the federal government. Here's what he said tonight:

We have also to address the fiscal imbalance. I think in a first step, it has to be made by increasing the payment transfers of the provinces on a four-year basis, and, after that, we have to start a negotiation and I think a negotiation should be based - concerning both the equalization payment and also the fiscal imbalance, and I think the best proposal has been made by Mr. Seguin with his report on the fiscal imbalance, and it is strongly supported in Quebec. Getting part of the GST and income points back to Quebec, back to the jurisdictions that are the provincial jurisdictions.

Note also that he opposes Stephen Harper's GST cut, even though it would be a first step towards transfering tax room to the provinces.

Several commenters felt that Jack Layton was weak tonight. I agree that he wasn't very strong. However, he was trying to make a special message to a very targeted audience: those NDP voters who might switch Liberal out of fear of a Conservative win. He repeated it often enough that I don't have to tell you what it was, so he probably did a decent job.

Watching Paul Martin tonight, I did feel a bit sorry for him. He does care about Canada, but hasn't been a very good manager of government. In fact, he has been cyncial and manipulative. But I still felt for the old guy.

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