Saturday, December 17, 2005

Gay Marriage Fireworks In Second Debate In Canadian Election Campaign

by Alexander Panetta, Canadian Press

Posted: December 17, 2005 12:01 am ET

(Vancouver, British Columbia) The divisive issue of same-sex marriage triggered the most emotion-charged confrontation of the second debate by the leaders of Canada's four main political parties Friday night, with accusations of hidden agendas and hypocrisy.

Prime Minister Paul Martin moved to exploit the chink in Stephen Harper's political armor, suggesting the Conservative leader has a hidden agenda.

"Mr. Harper, let me tell you, it is the responsibility of the prime minister to defend the Charter of Rights.

"If you can't defend the Charter of Rights, you've got to ask why you want to be prime minister. I will defend the Charter of Rights and I will not bring forth new legislation."

Harper said during Thursday's French-language debate that he would not use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to overrule the courts and ban same-sex marriage. But he says he will allow a free vote in the House of Commons on a ban.

Martin pounced on that: "Mr. Harper has two incompatible positions. His position is not sustainable, and integrity demands that he tell Canadians in fact what his true policies and agenda are."

Harper accused Martin of hypocrisy.

"Why are there dozens of Liberal candidates running in this election that support the Conservative position on this issue?"

All leaders except Harper support leaving the gay marriage question alone now.

Harper's promise not to use the notwithstanding clause was an attempt to woo moderate voters, particularly in Ontario, where the Conservatives must win more seats to have any hope of forming a government.

The debate format, new this year, doesn't allow for direct confrontation between the candidates. But the leaders were far more adversarial in the English debate compared with the French-language encounter on Thursday.

While the opposition leaders pounded away at Martin, the prime minister repeatedly went after Harper, clearly seeing the Tory leader as his main adversary.

Under the new format, the four party leaders each get a one-minute opening statement and then answer videotaped questions from Canadians.

In his opening statement, Martin trumpeted the country's good economic record and his tax cuts, new cash for health care and child care. He also said the Liberals are the best party to keep Canada united.

Harper pledged to clean up government, crack down on crime, reduce medical wait times and give parents a choice on child care.

"After 12 years of scandal and inaction, only a new government can turn the page and address the real priorities that you have - you, the ordinary people who work hard, pay your taxes and play by the rules.

New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton also promised to clean up Liberal corruption, as well as improve health care, provide better education and training for young people and bring in a long-term care plan.

"It's a different way of doing politics - a real change," he said.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe focused squarely on the sponsorship scandal, saying the Liberals have lost the moral authority to govern.

The opposition leaders jumped on a question about whether it bothers them that there's a perception - in the wake of the sponsorship scandal - that all politicians are crooks. They used it to pound the Liberals.

"This scandal is without parallel at the federal level in Canadian history," Harper said. "I do not believe we can let that go unpunished. The Liberal party must be held politically accountable for it."

Martin defended his efforts to clean up after the scandal.

"I grew up in a political family. I am very proud of my father. . . . And to think politicians are given the reputations they have today bothers me very much and that's why I put Judge (John) Gomery in place and created the commission (into the sponsorship scandal).

"I wanted the answers, and I wanted Canadians to know that, in fact, openness and transparency and honesty is what pays off."

Asked about the recent comments by U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins that Ottawa should tone down its rhetoric about the U.S., Martin said he will always speak up for Canada.

"When we have a disagreement, like on climate change, like on softwood, we should not be afraid to tell them," he said.

Harper accused Martin of engaging in a "phony and reckless wars of words that does not help this economy or Canadians."

"It's important for a prime minister to keep relations as good as we can while standing up for our real interests," Harper said.

The only apparent new promise to come out of the debate was a pledge by Harper to set up a national agency to evaluate the professional credentials of immigrants in order to ease Canada's shortage of skilled labor.

The Conservative leader let slip a few details about the measure when the candidates were asked how they would help skilled immigrants ply their trades in Canada.

"We're going to set up, as our first priority in the immigration field, a Canadian agency for the assessment and recognition of credentials," Harper said.

"We're going to provide free assessment to immigrants who want to come to this country on how they can best use or acquire Canadian credentials, and also make sure the private sector is more aware of those credentials."

Officials in the Conservative camp confirmed that such a promise is in the offing but would not offer any more information, saying Harper would release more details in the new year.

Harper blamed the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin for failing to address a growing shortage of doctors, engineers and other professionals in Canada by making it easier for skilled immigrants to set up shop once they arrive.

© 2005


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