MONTREAL — Two ghosts from Stephen Harper's political past came back to haunt him Friday during the final leaders' debate of the election campaign: the notion that he has a hidden agenda and his position on abortion.
Both lines of attack have been used against Harper since he took over leadership of the Conservatives in 2004. His opponents hope to pull centrist voters away, a tactic which resonates as this election heads into its final two weeks with a logjam in the polls only starting to break.
In Quebec in particular, the NDP are seeing their support bleed to the Conservatives in part over the unexpected campaign issue of the wearing of veils during citizenship ceremonies, which the Conservatives oppose and the NDP support.
So NDP Leader Tom Mulcair went after Harper over a 2012 incident in which he chose the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as the place to announce that the Conservatives would raise the age people at which can qualify for old age income benefits.
Harper was widely criticized for making the announcement overseas. Questions were also raised because he had won a majority government only seven months prior without ever raising the issue during the campaign.
"What are you hiding this time?'' Mulcair asked Harper during Friday night's debate.
Harper's reply was that Mulcair was referring to an issue that doesn't take affect until 2023 and the government was actively supporting seniors in a variety of ways.
As the debate switched to the issue of wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, the NDP and Liberals both attacked Harper for creating an issue out of nothing. Mulcair said it affects two out of 680,000 new immigration cases.
"One case is one case too many,'' Harper said.
"We don't defend fundamental values with statistics. We run an open society, one of equality and our oath of citizenship ceremony, when we become Canadian, must reflect those values.''
But in a later segment of the debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Harper had a lot of gall suggesting it was an equality issue:
"The reality is that a majority of Quebecers like me are in favour of the right to abortion. Since you're talking about personal values, are you going to tell us here, tonight, for the first time, whether you are pro-choice or pro-life?''
Harper did not answer, saying his position for the least 10 years has been that he doesn't intend to re-open the abortion debate.
Harper went back to the niqab and said his opponents are out of touch.
"The only divisions here are between the NDP and the Liberals with the rest of the population. Almost all public opinion is in favour of a policy of taking the oath of citizenship without a covering.''
Several public polls, and one commissioned by the government, have found this to be true.
The Conservatives headed into the election campaign with five seats in Quebec and remain confident they'll increase that when voters head to the polls Oct. 19.
But most polls have them effectively in a three-way race with the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois for second-place status in the province, with the New Democrats still in first.
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