Conservatives are reacting with fury to a Liberal attack ad that accuses them of harbouring a secret agenda to cut health care funding if they obtain a majority government.
"The Liberal ad uses some of the dirtiest tricks in the book - including twisting words out of context and deliberately altering dates to make old words appear recent," Tory campaign manager Jenni Byrne wrote to party supporters in reaction to the new attack ad.
She accused the Liberals of "turning to falsehood and fear mongering to rescue their floundering campaign. They are grasping at straws."
The letter raised eyebrows, including in the Liberal camp, since it is the Conservatives who, in the past, have been criticized for distorting, exaggerating or generally misrepresenting their opponents' policies through attack ads.
"This is by far the silliest and most far fetched statement coming from the Harper Conservatives as they scramble to cover up Harper's stated views on health care and the cuts he's admitted to," said party spokesman Michel Liboiron.
But it is also clear that, as he continues to trail in the polls, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has abandoned the high road he promised to stick to when the campaign began.
If Mr. Harper is given "absolute power," the ad warns, he plans to cut $11-billion from the federal budget. "Where would Harper's cuts leave your family's health?" the narrator asks.
"The stakes are too high. Vote Liberal."
The Liberal ad is intriguing on several fronts. It implicitly assumes that a Conservative majority government might be in reach, a remarkable concession from the Liberals, who have trailed in the polls since the election campaign began.
And it suggests that, with Mr. Ignatieff showing little sign of momentum among voters, the Grit war room may have decided something must be done to shake up the debate.
By warning of a secret Tory agenda to slash funding for health, they have done just that.
Mr. Harper dismissed the ad when asked about it by reporters at a campaign stop in Vancouver Saturday. It was the Liberals, he said, who cut health care funding, not the Conservatives.
"They said they would increase health care. They cut it," he said. "This party said we would increase it. We increased it. We say we'll continue to do so, and we will."
When asked Friday about the Liberal ad, leader Michael Ignatieff said the Conservative pledge to continue health care increases at six per cent can't be believed. He said the Conservative numbers "don't ad up" when other long term Conservative pledges are factored in,listing the purchase of new F-35s and a pledge to allow income splitting for Canadians with children under 18.
For the record: in the years before he became Conservative Leader, Mr. Harper was bullish on the idea of permitting greater private-sector participation in health care, although he has since retreated from that position and has promised to protect the Canada Health Act.
The Conservatives do plan to cut government spending as part of their own plan to balance the budget, but they promise to do so without reducing transfers to provinces, including health transfers.
It is true that the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien cut funding for health care in the 1990s as part of its efforts to eliminate the federal deficit. Once the budget was balanced, the Paul Martin government signed a ten-year accord to increase funding by six per cent a year. The Conservatives, when they came to power, honoured that commitment, and pledge to continue the arrangement, as does Mr. Ignatieff.
But the minutiae of health care policy may matter less than the fact that, with a little more than two weeks until the May 2 vote, the Liberals have taken off the gloves, and the Conservatives are swinging back.
With a file from Bill Curry