Toronto — This was debate week in Canada - and Brian Mulroney, the leader of the opposition Progressive Conservative Party, was the winner. That is the virtually unanimous assessment of press and commentators.
Mr. Mulroney tore into the new Liberal prime minister, John Turner, on the issue of patronage and left Mr. Turner almost speechless.
There were two nights of television debates, the first in French Tuesday evening, the second two-hour session in English Wednesday. Each night a panel of journalists questioned the Liberal and Conservative candidates as well as Edward Broadbent, the leader of the socialist New Democratic Party.
Mulroney won the French debate mainly because he speaks the language like a native. But it was in the English-language debate that he came out swinging, hitting hard at the Liberal Party's appointment of 250 men and women to government sinecures at the time of the switch of power from Pierre Trudeau to John Turner.
Turner himself appointed 19 people, 17 of them Liberal members of the House of Commons.
Surprisingly, it was Turner who brought up the issue of patronage, referring to a remark Mulroney had made to reporters, jokingly saying he would get his ''nose in the public trough'' if given the chance.
''Mr. Mulroney, on the basis of what you've talked about in getting your nose in the public trough - you wouldn't offer Canadians any newness in the style of government,'' said Turner. ''It reminds me of patronage at its best.''
Mulroney refused to be embarrassed at his public indiscretion and quickly came back on the attack: ''I believe what you did was so bad - and I apologized for even kidding about it - the least you should do is to apologize for even having made these horrible appointments.''
Turner replied: ''I had no option'' - meaning that, had he not made the appointments in a deal with the outgoing prime minister, he would have been on shaky ground in the House of Commons, perhaps open to defeat in a confidence vote.
Mulroney would not accept that logic. ''You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada.' You had an option to say 'no' and you said 'yes,' and if I may say so, that is an avowal of failure and that is a confession of nonleadership.''
It was like watching Perry Mason wash the floor with a rookie DA. Both men are lawyers, but Mulroney has more courtroom experience. He was once a top labor lawyer in Montreal. After the debate one woman viewer said if she were hiring a lawyer, she would choose Mulroney.
The second big winner of the debate was Edward Broadbent, the leader of the New Democratic Party, which is trailing badly in the polls. Mr. Broadbent is a shrill debater in the House of Commons but in the TV debates this week he was calm, reasoned, and articulate.
Broadbent criticized Turner's attitude toward women, saying the prime minister came from a generation that had little respect for women and it showed in Turner's patronizing attitude toward them.
''I think that Mr. Turner has that kind of mentality. He seems to think it appropriate to go around patting women on the derriere,'' Broadbent said.
Turner responded that he didn't mean any disrespect. ''When people reach out to me, I reach out to them. The gesture was a mark of friendship.'' He added, ''I want women as equal partners in the running of this country.''
Broadbent scored points, but his main theme, ''Make the rich pay,'' may not go down well with voters.
At one stage Mulroney jumped on that bandwagon as well and said he would make rich taxpayers pay some income tax. There are so many loopholes in the Tax Act that many rich people do not pay even a minimum tax in Canada.
There will be a third debate in mid-August sponsored by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. The election is on Sept. 4.