Liberal adviser Andrew Leslie emerged from a week-long storm over his taxpayer-funded moving fees with a clear appeal to Conservative supporters to think about joining Justin Trudeau’s team.
Speaking at a four-day Liberal convention in Montreal, the retired lieutenant-general laid out a three-pronged attack against the Harper government, pointing to failed military procurements since 2010, the mistreatment of veterans and the Conservative Party’s allegedly vindictive ways.
“If you don’t like what’s going on, then join us,” Mr. Leslie said in a speech that contained a message to “the Conservative base.”
“We don’t throw people under a bus, and back up over them and do it again. That’s just not right,” he said, clearly attempting to lure disaffected Conservatives to the Liberal Party.
However, Mr. Leslie is under fire following media revelations that National Defence paid $72,000 in real-estate and relocation fees to cover the cost of his family’s last move after his retirement in 2011.
The payment was standard practice for members of the military after 20 years of service, to allow them to retire in the home of their choice. However, Mr. Leslie’s move was only a short distance within Ottawa, and the real-estate fees were more expensive than other military moves as he sold his house in an upscale part of Ottawa for $1-million.
The Conservatives have used the controversy over the fees to attack the judgment of Mr. Leslie, who announced last fall that he was becoming a defence and foreign policy adviser to the Liberal Leader.
Mr. Leslie shot back at the convention that National Defence simply enforced the Harper government’s own policy when it paid his moving fees. Mr. Leslie added he had been courted by the Conservatives before he decided to join the Liberal Party last year, suggesting that the controversy consisted of political payback.
“This was a partisan attack, designed to discourage other people, like you, from joining Justin’s team, because certain people are frightened of the spirit of optimism and hard work,” he said.
However, the Conservative Party argued that Mr. Leslie was the one who made the initial entreaties after he left the Canadians Forces.
“Andrew Leslie approached the Conservative Party of Canada. His lack of judgment and defence of excessive taxpayer spending further underscores why he is Justin Trudeau’s senior adviser,” the Conservative Party said in a statement.
At a news conference, Mr. Leslie refused to go into details of his discussions, stating there was much back and forth, “akin to a dance.”
In his speech, Mr. Leslie choked up as he discussed the plight of veterans who have come back from warzones with physical and mental scars. He accused the Conservative government of mishandling the file, particularly with the replacement of pensions with a one-time payment.
“We ask a lot of these people,” he said. “They all need our help, and they need it now.”
Speaking to reporters, he said that the Liberals have not made a final decision on the matter of payments to veterans, but added that returning to the previous system is popular within the party.
On military procurement, he said in his speech the Conservative government has “the worst record” of any government over the last five decades. He pointed to the bungled purchase of new fighter jets and helicopters, and the failure to acquire new military trucks.
“They can’t even buy a modest fleet of trucks that are painted green,” Mr. Leslie said.
It is widely expected that Mr. Leslie will seek the Liberal nomination in the riding of Ottawa-Orléans, and he joked that after running in a marathon with Mr. Trudeau last year, “it would be an honour to run with him again.”
In a statement, the office of Defence Minister Rob Nicholson defended his government's record in terms of military procurement, pointing to a series of big ticket purchases after the so-called "decade of darkness" under the previous Liberal government.
"The Harper Government has made respect for our military traditions a priority, restoring the traditional identities of the army, navy and air force and honouring military service and traditions from the War of 1812, through the two World Wars, in Korea and in more recent conflicts," Mr. Nicholson's press secretary, Johanna Quinney, said.