Nothing in debate to change status quo

It always seems a bit goofy to be scoring a political debate like a boxing match or a dog show.

But that’s largely what these one-off encounters are about. The four party leaders spent Tuesday evening trying to persuade voters to give them the prize for best in show.

And like a dog show, the ribbon doesn’t go to the smartest or friendliest, but to the one who looks like the best example of his breed.

On that basis, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives should be pleased. Harper’s message was simple – economic growth is the priority, his government is competent and people should pay no attention to all that talk of contempt for Parliament and wasteful spending.

That’s all “bickering,” not something Canadians should be worried about.

He had an advantage. Front-runners always do. The other leaders – especially Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff – had to look significantly better than people expected; Harper just had to avoid looking worse.

Mostly, he did that.

But not always. It should irritate some voters that Harper seemed so dismissive of the finding that his government had wrongfully concealed information from MPs and been found in contempt of Parliament.

That is not just squabbling, or political games. The Speaker supported the finding and any fair reading of the record shows that the Harper government’s secrecy made it impossible for MPs to do their job of scrutinizing the costs and benefits of legislation,

And Harper’s claims that he did not contemplate some form of coalition government in 2004 were contradicted by NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, who co-signed a letter to then Gov.-Gen Adrienne Clarkson that certainly seemed to suggest that was his plan.

Ignatieff spent much of the debate stressing three themes. Harper is an undemocratic control freak who won’t work with others; the Conservatives will waste money on more prisons, fighter jets and corporate tax cuts at the expense of the interests of ordinary Canadians; and the only alternative is a Liberal government. “You didn’t tell Parliament the truth,” he said. “You abused democracy.”

Ignatieff was OK. But there was no magic moment of connection that would make an uncommitted voter suddenly sit up and decide that Ignatieff really gets it and would be a great leader.

Layton performed at a similar level. He had one of the better lines – “I don’t know why we need so many prisons when the crooks seem so happy in the Senate.”

But while he was successful in challenging the Conservative’s record and raised fears about their actions if they won a majority, Layton had a harder time differentiating the New Democrats from the Liberals.

As always, Duceppe had an advantage. His job was just to push the other leaders into positions that would play badly in Quebec, demanding, for example, that the province’s language laws be extended to cover federally-regulated workplaces.

He too had a good line. The debate was based on six questions from Canadians. When Harper responded to the first, Duceppe congratulated him for answering a question from a citizen for the first time in the campaign.

There wasn’t a lot of policy discussion, beyond the themes the parties have already laid out.

That was particularly striking when the leaders dealt with the last question, about health care.

None of them had any new ideas or approaches. The issue quickly became how to pay for health care. Harper said tax cuts meant a stronger economy and more money for services; Layton and Ignatieff said any government would have to choose between health care and jails, jets and corporate tax giveaways, to use the talking point.

Three weeks to go until election day. Perhaps some of the debate themes will stick – the Conservatives should be vulnerable on their undemocratic tendencies, for example. Or perhaps new issues, like the suspect $50 million in G8 spending will emerge.

If not, we are likely on the way to another minority government. Nothing the leaders did Tuesday was enough to change that.