Canada’s federal party leaders locked horns over how to resurrect the country’s faltering economy, the discredited Senate and national unity on Thursday, the first election debate of the 2015 campaign.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP chief Tom Mulcair tried to paint Stephen Harper as an out-of-touch leader who’s frittered away government revenue on tax breaks and remains insulated from the weakening economy.

“He may not feel that from 24 Sussex but I know you feel that at home,” Mr. Trudeau said during the Maclean’s debate in Toronto.

His rivals slammed the Conservative Leader for his government’s reluctance to acknowledge the slowing Canadian economy and for not spending money to stimulate jobs and growth.

Mr. Harper said his critics are overstating the problem and rejected the idea of running a deficit to jump-start jobs, saying this would be foolhardy.

“The [economic] contraction is almost exclusively in the energy sector,” the Tory Leader said.

“The way to handle falling oil prices is not … increased borrowing and increased spending,” he said, arguing against going “back into deficit and spend[ing] billions of dollars we don’t have.”

The 2015 campaign is the first serious three-way race in recent memory with the Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals nearly tied among decided voters, according to polls.

These verbal sparring contents that took place Thursday will help determine a crucial question still unanswered at this early stage of the campaign: will the NDP or the Liberals emerge as the main challenger to Mr. Harper?

The Conservative election strategy requires the New Democratic vote to be sufficiently strong to steal support from the Liberals, and Mr. Harper’s conduct in the debate reflected that.

Where he could, the Tory chief supported Mr. Mulcair.

On the issue of Quebec separatism, though, the Conservative Leader attacked him.

Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper turned on Mr. Mulcair’s policy, which he recently repeated in a June speech in Quebec City, that the NDP would recognize a referendum result in Quebec where 50 per cent plus one of the population voted to separate. This is a repudiation of the federal Clarity Act that says a “clear majority” in Quebec need to vote to separate.

“Why bring up the debate of the Clarify Act other than to satisfy the separatist elements within the NDP?” Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Mulcair rejected the accusation, saying he is a federalist who has fought for a united Canada.

The Liberal Leader, who needs to persuade Canadians he’s a superior alternative to Mr. Mulcair, went after the NDP chief repeatedly during the debate.

Mr. Trudeau attacked Mr. Mulcair’s proposed corporate tax hikes as “pandering to people who hate corporations” and said a better idea is the Liberal plan to increase personal taxes for the wealthiest Canadians.

The NDP Leader said he doesn’t want to raise personal income taxes because it would discourage professionals from locating in Canada.

Mr. Trudeau also went after his New Democratic rival’s highest-profile promises, suggesting Mr. Mulcair is “misleading” voters with his proposal for a $15-per-hour minimum wage because it would only apply to federally regulated industries.

“He’s good at his criticism and his questions but is not necessarily good at answering questions that are put to him,” Mr. Trudeau said of the NDP Leader.

“He’s giving Canadians who work in big box stores and coffee shops false hope because his minimum-wage plan actually will only help less than 1 per cent of every Canadian who earns minimum wage.”

The NDP Leader, currently the front-runner as the leading alternative to Mr. Harper, has benefited from a shift in opinion polls this year as increasing numbers of Canadians indicate they’re willing to vote for the centre-left party and as a relentless barrage of attack ads have hammered Mr. Trudeau as unready.

One of Mr. Harper’s biggest vulnerabilities is the Senate, which he long promised to reform but has now produced a slew of controversy over alleged misspending.

Mr. Harper refused to apologize for appointing Senator Mike Duffy, who is now on trial for fraud. “My role in the world is not to apologize for the bad actions of others … the role of a leader is to take responsibility and hold people accountable and that is what we are doing,” the Conservative Leader said.

He also defended his decision to stop appointing senators, saying he believes it will force the provinces to agree to reform, or abolish the Senate.

The leaders also clashed over energy development, with Mr. Harper accusing Mr. Mulcair of being unreasonably closed-minded on projects such as pipelines and the NDP Leader characterizing his rival as too favourable.

“Mr. Harper is taking the position that you can say yes to all of them in advance,” Mr. Mulcair said.

The Conservative Leader retorted that the NDP Leader has little time for this sort of development. “That is the record of the NDP: they are always for projects until they actually face one and they’re against it.”

The bar is relatively low for the Conservative Leader. After nearly 10 years in power, it’s unlikely Mr. Harper can substantially overhaul the image most Canadians have of him.

His challenge in debates is to successfully appeal to voters beyond his core support base – swing voters – whom he will need to retain a majority government.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, however, have the bigger task ahead of them.

Both need to establish themselves as potential prime ministers and demonstrate their party has the skills to govern.

Mr. Harper defended his record of cutting corporate and personal income taxes, saying they paid dividends in terms of higher overall business tax revenue and easing the load on the middle class.

He said his rival’s proposals to raise taxes “would kill jobs and they would hurt ordinary people.”

All parties slammed Mr. Harper for running eight consecutive deficits and adding $150-billion to the debt but none acknowledged much of this was fiscal stimulus to help the ailing economy after the 2008-2009 recession.

Mr. Harper, for his part, tried to characterize his rivals as inseparable from each other, using phrases such as “these guys,” and “the other guys,” when describing the NDP and the Liberals.

Green Leader Elizabeth May attacked what she called the Conservatives’ “fixation with a balanced budget.”

She accused the Conservatives of “monkeying” with Ottawa’s books to “fake a balance.”

Mr. Harper dismissed this, saying budget figures this year so far show Ottawa is well on its way to a surplus for 2015-16.

For Ms. May, this debate offers her a chance to raise her profile in the hopes of building her tiny caucus in the Commons. Pollsters say her best chance for seats may be on Vancouver Island.

On terrorism and security, Mr. Mulcair accused the Conservative Leader of being biased against Muslims. Mr. Harper rejected the charge, saying the threat is a radical interpretation of Islam only. “Muslims are the vast majority of victims of this movement,” he said of jihadism.

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Aug. 06, 2015 7:32AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Aug. 07, 2015 6:44AM EDT