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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Harper and Ignatieff game for head-to-head debate Add to ...

Stephen Harper is challenging his Liberal rival Michael Ignatieff to a one-on-one TV debate.

The Conservative Leader floated the idea during a campaign stop in Brampton, Ont., where the Tories are gunning for seats in the Liberal stronghold of the Greater Toronto Area.

"We could also have a debate between Mr. Ignatieff and myself," Mr. Harper said, adding he believes the pair represent the only reason choice in this election.

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The Liberal Leader's response came quickly: "Any time, any place."

Asked about the idea in Vancouver, Mr. Ignatieff said "Canadians want a debate of principles. I think Canadians want a debate between hope and fear. ... I welcome that debate any day."

Mr. Harper later questioned Mr. Ignatieff's commitment to a one on one debate.

Using his Twitter account, Mr. Harper said to the Liberal chief: "Curiously, my team proposed 1:1 to TV consortium today; however, your team did not speak up." A Conservative spokesman said the party leader sent the tweet from his personal iPad.

Mr. Harper has been alleging his rival is secretly prepared to form a coalition government with the NDP, supported by the Bloc Quebecois, to oust the Tories if they only win a minority government. This ignores the fact that Mr. Ignatieff has ruled out a coalition government with the NDP.

Jack Layton, meanwhile, said Canadians will not allow him to be left out of any debate between party leaders.

"I don't think its right. I don't think Canadians would accept it," he told reporters in Brampton, where he was promoting his party's job creation proposals. "It really prejudges the position of Canadians and it essentially tries to replicate some kind of an American approach to politics which I don't think we want to see here."

The NDP Leader said any one-on-one debate between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff would be a further step against the concept of democracy.

"I guess it doesn't surprise me coming from Mr. Harper. He's not someone whose had a lot of respect for democracy. He prorogues Parliament when he doesn't like where it's headed," Mr. Layton said.

The Tories would naturally want to exclude the voice of New Democrats from any debate because it is the NDP that has stood up to him most forcefully, he said. "Mr. Ignatieff sided with him 100 times in the last Parliament."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe also condemned the idea of a one-on-one debate. Mr. Duceppe, whose party held just less than two-thirds of Quebec seats before the election, said Quebeckers have the right to have their issues aired.

He said English-speaking Canadians seemed happy to hear from him in other debates.

"Mr. Harper wants to exclude Quebec from the leaders' debate. We can't accept that; it's an attack on democracy," Mr. Duceppe said to reporters he assembled to address the debate issue.

"It's totally unacceptable, we will oppose this to be sure. I have confidence the consortium will do as in the past."

But Martin Goldfarb, who served as official pollster for the Liberal Party from 1972 to 1984, said he thinks the Canadian public would support a one-on-one debate in order to glean the thinking of the "main combatants" in the campaign.

"The public wants to see Stephen Harper face off against Michael Ignatieff," Mr. Goldfarb said. "We need to give the key contenders the opportunity to position themselves, to define what they want you to think of them and the party they represent."

He said the "in many ways" the Conservatives and Liberals "hold similar policies" and so Canadians need more details on "the points of differentiation."

"We want to genuinely understand their character, their beliefs, their foresight and their insight," Mr. Goldfarb said.

Mr. Harper raised the one-one-one debate with his Mr. Ignatieff after being asked whether he felt Green Party Leader Elizabeth May should be included in TV debates among leaders.

She's being excluded this year, despite Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe endorsing her presence in the debate. The format and rules are set by the TV networks in consultation with major parties.

Mr. Harper was non-committal on whether Ms. May should be included. Her party has yet to win a seat in the Commons.

"There is a number of options. The networks will ultimately have to make a decision that serves the public interest and we will insist that it treats ourselves and all parties fairly," the Tory chief said.

"We're open to any number of possibilities. We can have a traditional debate of Parliamentary leaders. We could have a debate that includes Ms. May in such a format. We could have a debate that includes every party on the ballot."

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