The three Liberal leadership candidates bunched in second place foreshadowed Canada's next election campaign yesterday with a blistering portrait of the Conservative government as ideological, mischievous, divisive and un-Canadian.
Rarely drawing distinctions among themselves, Bob Rae, Stéphane Dion and Gerard Kennedy instead found rhetorical soil to till in presenting themselves as leaders of the forthcoming Liberal political assault on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party.
Mr. Rae, the former Ontario NDP premier, called Mr. Harper's Conservatives the most intensely ideological administration in Canada's history, bent on appealing only to their own supporters. In the next election, he said, the Liberals will offer a clear alternative for supporters of the New Democrats and the Green Party and for Progressive Conservatives who now feel they have no political home.
Mr. Dion, a Quebec MP and former federal Liberal minister, said Canadians are seeing hints of the Conservatives' agenda in the reopening of the same-sex marriage debate and the termination of public intervenor funding under the federal Court Challenges Program.
But what the Conservatives are doing now as a minority government, he said, is nothing like what they would do with a majority.
Mr. Kennedy, the former Ontario education minister, described Mr. Harper's government as full of political mischief that Canadians must resist.
The three candidates spoke at a lunch in Toronto organized jointly by the Canadian and Empire Clubs.
Michael Ignatieff, currently the first-place candidate, was invited to attend but refused to participate in an event described by his spokeswoman as "arbitrarily restricted to perceived 'front-runners.' "
She said Mr. Ignatieff wanted all eight candidates to be present. Lunch organizers said he also offered to speak alone.
(Candidate Martha Hall Findlay, trailing the pack in delegate support, attended the lunch and was introduced by Canadian Club president Noella Milne, but she was not invited to speak.)
The only reference to Mr. Ignatieff at the lunch came indirectly -- almost in code language -- from Mr. Rae, who twice spoke of Canada's perennial national unity difficulties as requiring practical, constructive solutions rather than "abstract, theoretical discussions . . . to resolve the constitutional riddle," an apparent allusion to Mr. Ignatieff's proposal to reopen the Constitution debate and have Quebec declared a "nation" within Canada.
Mr. Rae, Mr. Dion and Mr. Kennedy all stated forcefully that Canada's military mandate in Afghanistan must be re-examined and renegotiated with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and the international community.
They rejected any notion of a simple military solution to the Afghan turmoil.
They said that Canada's front-line military commitment must be more equitably shared, and that development assistance must be given a much higher priority in the two-pronged policy of armed resistance to Taliban insurgents and economic rebuilding of the country.
Mr. Dion said he still supports the mission because he believes the majority of Afghans want the protection of Canadian troops.
But referring to NATO and Canadian military commanders who declared victory in a recent military engagement against the Taliban, he said: "We see now that we won nothing . . . There is no way we can win this war."
And MPs, he said, should never have voted in Parliament "in a blind way" to extend Canada's military engagement for two years to 2009.
Mr. Kennedy said Canada needs the commitment of the whole international community to bring peace and reconstruction to Afghanistan.
"If not, we should leave in an orderly fashion after February, 2007, with our heads held high as a country that's provided the only other possibility -- short-term security need -- on a par with any other in the world."