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Federal leaders' debate: PM relied on rope-a-dope defence to deflect G8 accusations

Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose riding got plenty of G8 pork

It only took about two minutes Tuesday night for the federal election campaign's newest character issue, the conclusions of the Auditor-General's leaked report on the G8/G20 summit, to break the surface of the English-language federal leaders' election debate.

AG Sheila Fraser's draft report, published just a day before the debate by the Canadian Press after persons unknown dropped off a copy in the traditional plain brown envelope, alleged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives lavished millions in funds earmarked for the June 2010 international summit in Toronto on Industry Minister Tony Clement's Parry Sound-Muskoka riding, then misled Parliament about it.

This revelation -- the latest in a series of ethical issues, starting with the vote holding the government in contempt of Parliament -- put the Conservative campaign on the defensive just hours before the debate was to begin.

In the end, arguably, it didn't have all that much impact on the outcome of the debate, in which Harper relied on the political equivalent of boxing's "rope-a-dope" defence, in which a fighter covers up and leans on the ropes to stay out of trouble as his opponent wears himself out.

In this case, that meant not getting mad and staying inside his tightly defined "message box" as Michael Ignatieff of the Liberals, Jack Layton of the NDP and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois peppered the prime minister with blows.

Like the many other ethical issues in this campaign, most of which have gained little traction with voters, the effect on Harper of the G8/G20 revelations appeared minimal. At any rate, after two hours, the results were indecisive enough that all four parties' spokespeople could spin the battle as a victory for their man. It'll probably take until May 2 for the rest of us to be certain what voters took from the debate, if anything.

Still, Fraser's report was fresh enough -- not least because she refused to release it Tuesday despite the permission of all four parties -- that it provided something a little more current than the usual fare at such events.

If the leak accurately reflects the full contents of the report -- which seems likely, although Harper tried manfully to deny it -- it explains a lot about why the June 2010 summit cost so much more than similar events worldwide.

According to the draft report, among the projects that were funded by the summit's budget of well over $1 billion were $1.1 million for sidewalks and trees more than 100 kilometres from summit events, more than three quarters of a million to spruce up the downtowns of communities 70 kilometres away and another quarter million for public toilets 20 kilometres from summit Ground Zero. And that doesn't include a $100,000 gazebo an hour's drive away!

Those details alone go a long way to explaining why what Ignatieff dismissed as "a 72-hour photo opportunity" for Harper, which accomplished essentially nothing, was so expensive. Recent estimates of the cost of the summit's security range between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion. Neither of these figures seems remotely credible for a three-day meeting.

By comparison, a similar G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 cost $18 million US. The bill for security at a G20 meeting in London that year ran to $20 million.

And the total cost of the month-long 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa was $313 million -- a third the price of Harper's summit -- and this included use of 44,000 paramilitary police, more than double the size of the entire regular membership of the RCMP, and armed escorts for all soccer players.

Come election day, it will be interesting to see if these tantalizing glimpses of how the Harper Conservatives do business have any meaningful impact on voters, or if a cynical and disengaged electorate just doesn't care about that kind of stuff anymore.

If this kind of potential scandal doesn't spark water cooler debate, one wonders what voters do care about.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga's column in yesterday's edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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