Dion strikes back at Harper's criticisms of his leadership

The Liberals' Stéphane Dion said Friday that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper had "no class" for criticizing his leadership abilities over his handling of an English-language interview.

Accuses Harper of 'sleeping at the switch' over economy

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion leaves his campaign plane as he arrives in Montreal on Thursday. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
Stéphane Dion said Friday that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper had "no class" for criticizing his leadership abilities based on his handling of an English-language interview.

The Liberal leader made the comments in an interview with CBC Newsworld on Friday morning, a day after the release of a tape showing Dion repeatedly asking for clarification of a question about the economy in an interview with CTV Atlantic.

The interview was restarted several times as Dion struggled with the question posed by broadcaster Steve Murphy. CTV Atlantic later broadcast the interview in its entirety and CTV's Mike Duffy aired a clip of the initial three takes of Dion struggling with the question.

"I did not understand the question," Dion said. "Maybe it's because I have a hearing problem, maybe because [English is] my second language, but I did not understand the question."

Specifically, Dion said he didn't understand exactly what time period broadcaster Murphy was referring to when he asked Dion what he would have done as prime minister about the economy and the financial crisis that Stephen Harper has not done. He wasn't sure whether Murphy meant were Dion in power in the years leading up to the crisis, after next week's election or today, which would affect his answer, Dion said.

He said taped interviews often have false starts, either on account of the guest or the journalist doing the interview. Usually, these are edited out in the final cut. Dion said he wasn't sure why CTV Atlantic chose to air the entire footage just five days before Tuesday's election, and that he found the decision to do so strange.

Won't hurt campaign: Dion

Nevertheless, he said he didn't believe the incident would hurt his campaign.

Harper said the episode highlights greater concerns than language comprehension, and shows instead that Dion has no plan for dealing with the global credit crisis that is threatening to spill over into Canada.

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‘If the Conservatives weren't attempting to spin this in such a negative way, the footage is actually kind of funny. To me, it seemed like Dion just genuinely did not understand the question.’

—Melora Funke

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"Well that's interesting because we hear about [Dion's plan] every single day," said the CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the election.

"It's … about meeting the premiers, it's about creating infrastructure jobs to kick-start a slowdown in the economy. It's about his $1-billion fund that he has for the manufacturing sector in case they want to tap into it."

Harper stands by comments

Harper delayed a flight Thursday night to show the tape to reporters and make a statement, deviating from a campaign routine of meeting with media just once a day in the morning, Van Dusen said. He did not answer any questions following his statement.

Stephen Harper aswers questions from reporters on Friday in Brantford, Ont. ((CBC))
Dion portrayed the controversy over the interview as an attempt by Harper to divert attention from the Conservatives' election platform, which he called "a brochure."

"Mr. Harper's reaction [Thursday] is showing again how much this man has no class and no plan and is ready to go very low to hide that he has no plan," Dion said on Friday.

"The one who was unable to answer this question — for days, if not for weeks — is Stephen Harper."

Speaking in Brantford, Ont., on Friday, Harper stood by his comments about Dion's interview.

When asked by reporters whether his comments were mean-spirited, Harper said Dion's interview "speaks for itself."

"The problem wasn't with the question, it was with Mr. Dion's answer," he said.

"Canadians expect that you have a plan before you are elected, that your platform is not that you will develop a plan only if you are elected," he said.

Sticking with a campaign theme, he attacked Dion's Green Shift plan, which seeks to offset the carbon tax with income tax cuts. Harper has not mentioned Dion's proposed tax cuts in his criticisms over the course of the campaign.

"In many instances I've said during this election that he has no plan for the economy except the carbon tax. He stated that he needs 30 days after the election to develop a plan."

CTV defends decision

The head of CTV News, Robert Hurst, spoke out Friday in defence of the network's decision to broadcast the false starts despite an understanding it would not go to air.

He said an editorial review was held immediately following Dion's interview and they decided to air the piece in its entirety, even after Murphy "indicated that it would not be."

"It was our decision that this was a potentially important story and we wanted to put it out there completely."

Media analysts have questioned the news value of releasing the section of video, saying nothing was compelling enough to justify the change of mind.

Stephen Ward, a media ethics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said politicians have been caught out before when they didn't know cameras were rolling or were told material wouldn't be used.

But Ward said in most cases, producers were justified in showing it because the footage or interview revealed something vital about the subject.

"It really strains the credulity of the public to say, 'Well look, this shows that he's incompetent or he can't understand,' " Ward said.

Paul Knox of the Ryerson School of Journalism said it's hard to see a pressing need for broadcasting the tape, adding it should have aired as a hard news story if executives believed it was a strong story.

"You have a question as to whether it's just prurient interest and you're just making fun of someone's misfortune. Is it really something that gets to character or gets to intellectual capacity?" Knox said from Toronto.

With files from the Associated Press