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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 19: Lies, damn lies and attack ads Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2011, 10:33 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

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Hi John,

There was a small but significant victory for truth and justice yesterday, as the Liberals agreed to remove a false quotation from their health-care ad. The citation was false in two ways: (1) It was attributed to Stephen Harper, when in fact it had been uttered by David Somerville; and (2) Much more importantly, it was sourced to a 2010 Globe and Mail story, when it actually came from 1997. The 2010 story was merely a re-citation.

This was rather like what happened in the first week of the campaign, when the Conservatives put out two Internet ads which they had to retract under pressure. The ads showed Michael Ignatieff shouting 'Yes, yes, yes'' in answer to questions about whether he wanted an early election and planned to raise taxes. Mr. Ignatieff had, in fact, shouted "Yes, yes, yes" in a recent speech, but in response to very different questions.

Taken together, these retractions by both Conservatives and Liberals set a minimum standard of truth for campaign advertising: You can't get away with saying things that are completely and demonstrably false. There's still plenty of room for differing emphasis and creative interpretation, but you can't just make it up, at least if conclusive contrary evidence is available.

In both cases, the parties tried to defend their ads with bluster, but gave up when the media turned against them. No government agency was involved, and that's good. The last thing we need is a regulatory commission trying to resolve claims of truth and falsehood in the heat of the campaign. Hayek's spontaneous order once again shows its ability to resolve problems without government coercion.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 12:39 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I'm all for less bluster and truth-stretching in politics. I'm especially impressed, Tom, to see you note not only my party's occasional transgressions in this area, but yours as well.

In this vein, I'd love to see an amendment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protecting the ability of a politician to be allowed to say that they changed their mind. Let me be clear: I may be able to be persuaded that Mr. Harper no longer has designs on the Canada Health Act and on medicare. Maybe. But I'm not at all prepared to believe he never did. He said too much, signed off on too much, supported too much, and was involved in too much that was directed wholly against medicare for me to buy that he's somehow always really been a supporter in some quiet way or some such. Just can't swallow that one; no one can.

I can believe a conversion story, but I cannot believe one that says Mr. Harper has always been a friend of medicare. Surely a candid admission of having changed his mind would be a small price for the Prime Minister to pay for putting this issue to rest.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2011, 3:06 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

You're right, John. It was a conversion experience in 2002. It's documented on page 78 of Harper's Team . I would compare it to the conversion of Henry of Navarre to Roman Catholicism, which enabled him to become Henry IV, King of France. "Paris is worth a Mass," he is reputed to have said.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 3:35 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Laurier's favourite Henri IV quote was "follow my white plume," so I'm partial to that one. But the one you cite has always given me a chuckle. And besides, Henri IV was a very great king.

The process by which the PM has or has not made peace with some of the realities of Canadian politics and government has been a fascinating one. The big question with which the discussion always ends is: "Okay, but what if he gets a majority?"

That takes us to today's most interesting moment, John Ibbitson asking Mr. Harper whether he's finished in politics if he is defeated. Mr. Harper ducked it, but there's an even more interesting question wrapped inside that scenario: What would Mr. Harper do if he was defeated in Parliament on a vote of confidence?

The PM has tortured Mr. Ignatieff with question after question about what Mr. Ignatieff intends to do in a potential minority government scenario. I think it's reasonable to ask the same kind of hypothetical of Mr. Harper - were his government to be defeated upon return to a minority parliament, would he accept or somehow challenge the workings of the Constitution? Just asking.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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