Liberals say they'll change health-care ad quote

The Liberals are changing course and are now saying they will change an attack ad on health care that wrongly attributes a quote to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

Tories 'can dish it out, but they can't take it,' Ignatieff says of ads

Conservative Mike Lake and Liberal Carolyn Bennett discuss political attack ads with the CBC's Rosemary Barton 11:12

The Liberals are changing course and are now saying they will change an attack ad on health care that wrongly attributes a quote to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

The party had initially stood by the ad, arguing he has made similar statements in the past. But the Liberals are now running a poll  to let voters decide which Harper health-care quote they should use in the updated ad.

On Monday, the Conservatives demanded the Liberals stop using the anti-Harper health care ad because it attributes to Harper a statement on the future of the Canada Health Act that he never said.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says the Conservatives are lashing out at his party's ad because the Tories are concerned the race is "getting tight."

"The heat's on," Ignatieff said during a campaign event in Yellowknife. "They can dish it out, but they can't take it."

The quote cited in the Liberal health-care ad was from former National Citizens Coalition president David Somerville. ((CBC))

A spokesman for Ignatieff said Harper has a lifetime of comments that show his opposition to universal public health care in Canada.

"The Liberal ad is entirely consistent with Stephen Harper’s long-held negative opinion of the Canada Health Act," Marc Roy wrote in an email. "It references past statements made by Stephen Harper. These statements are on the public record and have been sourced multiple times — they are not made up."

'Stakes are too high': ad

The television ad  asks if voters can trust Harper to be in charge of health care and says he once argued the federal government should scrap the Canada Health Act.

"The stakes are too high," it says, as a heart monitor flatlines in the background.

"He said the law that protects universal health care should be scrapped," warns the female narrator.

But it wasn't Harper who spoke the words cited on screen in the ad — it was his then-boss, National Citizens Coalition president David Somerville, a Conservative spokesman said.

The ad cites an Aug. 26, 2010 Globe and Mail piece for the first statement, and runs it with a headline that says "It's Past Time the Feds Scrapped the Canada Health Act."

Globe issues correction

But while that line did indeed appear in the Globe last year, it was in a column by writer André Picard. Picard said he was citing Harper from a 1997 statement he made as vice-president of the NCC.

The Globe has now issued a correction to the column.

A Google search makes it  clear the line is oft-cited but never with a link to a recording or speech text. It's usually sourced to a famous speech Harper made in Montreal to a conservative American group called the Council for National Policy (where he calls Canada a northern European welfare state).

Ignatieff said Monday he was happy to correct the record if something is inaccurate, "provided it's reciprocal."

"These guys have been the masters of selective misquotation," Ignatieff said.

Contacted last Thursday, Liberal Party spokesman Michel Liboiron said he didn't think it was misleading to say the quote came from 2010.

"We wanted to use the most up-to-date reference, which would seem to be the Globe story," he said in an email.

CBC had tried last week to track down the quote but wasn't able to confirm it. The Conservatives contacted the media on Monday to announce their demand the Liberals remove the ad.

Neither the Liberal Party or NDP could provide source material for the quote.

The line appeared in the June 1997 issue of Bulldog, the NCC newsletter, Conservative spokesman Mike White said in an email.

"The Liberals know full well that the quotation belongs to Mr. Somerville, not Mr. Harper, because the Liberal Party correctly attributed the comment to Mr. Somerville in the Liberals' 2004 essay, "Stephen Harper and the National Citizens' Coalition," at page 5, footnote 20," White wrote.

Harper on health

The Liberals point to other Harper statements over the years to back up their point.

In a letter to the National Post in 2001, known as the Firewall letter, Harper and a handful of conservative academics argued Alberta should move ahead with its own health care policy because it could afford to pay the fines the federal government has the power to impose under the Canada Health Act.

"Resume provincial responsibility for health care policy. If Ottawa objects to provincial policy, fight in the courts," the letter says.

"Albertans deserve better than the long waiting periods and technological backwardness that are rapidly coming to characterize Canadian medicine. Alberta should also argue that each province should raise its own revenue for health care — i.e., replace Canada Health and Social Transfer cash with tax points, as Quebec has argued for many years."

In a 2002 debate in the House of Commons, Harper said he objects to public sector monopolies.

"It should not matter who delivers health care, whether it is private, for profit, not for profit or public institutions, as long as Canadians have access to it regardless of their financial means," he said.

In last week's English language leader's debate, Harper said governments across the country have experimented with alternative service delivery.

"We're not going to wave the finger at provinces because they experiment with different delivery," Harper said on April 12.