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Debate exposes key differences on protecting minority rights
Leaders split deeply on rights as campaign endgame begins

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004 – Page A1

OTTAWA -- The second round in the pre-election debates exposed deep differences between the front-runners, with Liberal Leader Paul Martin and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper locking horns over how to protect minority rights, how to improve child care, and how Canada should run its foreign policy.

In the English-language debate among federal party leaders last night, an aggressive Mr. Martin repeatedly attacked Mr. Harper and put the Conservative Leader on the spot over whether he would use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause if the Supreme Court struck down a law that would take away women's right to choose an abortion, or to override equality rights of gays and lesbians.

Calling the issue of whether gay couples should be able to marry "contentious and complex," Mr. Harper said the question should be up to Parliament -- not the courts. "My view is, this is the authority of Parliament and Parliament should simply act."

A confident Mr. Harper said he favoured the traditional definition of marriage. And he pointed out that Mr. Martin has said he would support using the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to allow churches to opt out of blessing same-sex marriages.

Mr. Harper said he would never legislate away abortion rights, nor would he use the notwithstanding clause to ban gay marriage. He raised the possibility of using the clause as a last resort to prohibit child pornography.

Mr. Martin vigorously defended the Liberal government's plans to legalize same-sex marriage, saying it's a matter of equality rights.

"I would never use the notwithstanding clause to take away the rights that are enshrined in the Charter," Mr. Martin said.

But NDP Leader Jack Layton accused Mr. Martin of avoiding the same-sex marriage issue by referring it to the Supreme Court for clarification.

"That's not leadership. We're looking for leadership," Mr. Layton said. When Mr. Harper pointed out that Mr. Martin himself voted to uphold the traditional definition of marriage in Parliament, Mr. Layton interjected: "It's back-of-the-bus human rights for same-sex couples."

The Liberal and Conservative differences were also stark over the issue of how involved Canada should have been in the war in Iraq. Mr. Martin accused Mr. Harper of betraying Canada by writing to the Wall Street Journal and apologizing for Canada's decision to not send troops.

The Liberals stressed the need to shape a foreign policy based on peacekeeping and rebuilding institutions in troubled countries, while Mr. Harper said Canada should rebuild its military and play a bigger role in international military efforts.

"The Cold War is over," Mr. Martin retorted. "We are not interested in getting aircraft carriers," he added, referring to the Conservative proposal to spend billions on new military equipment.

The divisions between the two leaders were also evident in social policy, especially when it comes to child care. Mr. Martin touted his promise to invest $5-billion to create new daycare spots, and accused Mr. Harper of having no proposals at all to improve early-childhood education.

"Your policy is nil," said Mr. Martin to Mr. Harper, bringing a sharp retort from Mr. Harper about the Conservative proposals to cut taxes for average families with children. Mr. Harper also highlighted his idea to give larger goods and services tax credits to poor families.

With the two men virtually tied in public-opinion polls, Mr. Martin needed to paint Mr. Harper as extreme last night to win back borderline voters who have reservations about the social agenda of the Conservative Party.

Mr. Harper needed to appear rational and calm, aiming to deflect the criticism and turn the debate back to areas where he was more comfortable: the Liberal spending record and the Conservative plan to cut taxes.

The debate quickly focused on a battle between Mr. Martin and Mr. Harper, with Mr. Layton trying gamely to make his points as he called on Canadians to give the NDP a "central role" in the new Parliament to guard against the risks of Liberal arrogance and the Conservatives' "hidden agenda."

Mr. Martin, who polls show would need the support of the NDP if he has any chance of forming a government, even reached out to Mr. Layton early in the debate, suggesting that proportional representation -- a pet issue of the NDP -- deserves serious study at the federal level. But Mr. Layton would have nothing of Mr. Martin's momentary peace offering, saying he didn't think Mr. Martin was serious and accusing him of arrogance for presupposing that only the Liberals and Conservatives deserve Canadians' support.

"They don't want to reward you with a fourth [Liberal] term," Mr. Layton said, arguing that both the NDP and the Liberals disagree with the Conservative tax-cut plans. "But Canadians are giving up on your party."

Even when Mr. Harper was not directly involved in the debate, Mr. Martin homed in on his positions -- describing the Conservatives as little more than a Canadian Alliance takeover.

After playing a central role in the French-language debate, Mr. Duceppe was largely sidelined last night, but not on issues that directly involved Quebec. Told by Mr. Harper that it was a "bit rich" for him to criticize Conservatives' commitment to official bilingualism because of Quebec's own language policies, Mr. Duceppe insisted that English residents in his province live in a "paradise" compared to French-speaking residents of other provinces.

Mr. Martin quickly took responsibility for the millions of dollars in sponsorship funds that have gone missing in the sponsorship scandal, and he frequently touted his plan to get to the bottom of it: the cancellation of the sponsorship program, changes in government controls over spending, and a full judicial inquiry.

"Believe you me, I want to get to the bottom of this. I want the proof to be out. I could have shovelled under the carpet. I did not," Mr. Martin said.

With a report from Kim Lunman

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