OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rivals ganged up on him on Wednesday, using a televised election debate to accuse him of favoring the same economic policies as U.S. President George W. Bush.
Harper’s center-right Conservatives have a minority of seats in the federal Parliament and polls show the party is set to strengthen its grip on power in an October 14 election.
Opposition leaders -- who regularly accuse Harper of harboring an extremist agenda and of taking his orders from Bush -- blamed the prime minister for Canada’s sluggish economic growth and said he should do more to help people who had lost their jobs.
“Mr Harper is a fan of the laissez-faire approach to the economy, like Mr Bush, and we can see the disaster unfolding now in the United States,” said Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
Harper says the Canadian economy is doing well considering the problems in the United States, which is by far Canada’s most important trading partner.
“The value of Canadian workers’ pensions has dropped by C$90 billion ($90 billion) in two days -- it’s unbelievable. And you say that everything is going well,” said Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democrats.
“The policies that you are suggesting today are the same ones used by George Bush ... Where is the action plan to protect people?”
The debate took place in French, a language spoken mainly in Quebec. The Conservatives are trying hard to build support in the politically powerful eastern province, which accounts for 75 of the 308 seats in Parliament.
Harper said the Canadian economy was still producing a surplus and creating new jobs despite the U.S. crisis.
“We are worried about what’s going on in the United States ... we’re in a period of slow growth,” he said.
But he added: “In the United States they’re losing jobs, they’re losing houses, they’re losing banks. It’s totally different in Canada.”
Harper’s main rival is Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion, who is campaigning on a promise to impose a carbon tax that he says will cut the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
“The U.S. banking system is the least regulated in the world, and it’s exactly the same ideology that Mr. Harper is proposing for Canada,” Dion said. Harper, who has proposed no changes to the banking system, says the country’s banks are solid and well-capitalized.
Harper won power in a late January 2006 election, ending more than 12 years of Liberal rule.
”In two and a half years you have so mismanaged the economy that our growth in the first half of this year was the weakest in the Group of Eight (leading industrialized nations),“ Dion told Harper.”
“The risk to our economy is you. You don’t believe the government has a role in the economy.”
Harper fired back: “You, Stephane, are proposing to raise taxes with a new tax on carbon. It’s a policy that’s going to destroy the economy.”
The unwieldy nature of the debate -- five leaders sitting around a table, often talking over each other -- meant it was hard for any one person to deal a knock-out blow.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer, editing by Anthony Boadle