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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rides in an aerial lift during a campaign stop at the Det'on Cho Training Centre in Dettah, NWT, on April 18, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rides in an aerial lift during a campaign stop at the Det'on Cho Training Centre in Dettah, NWT, on April 18, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'They dish it but they can't take it,' Ignatieff says after Liberals pull Harper quote Add to ...

The Liberals are escalating their attack on Stephen Harper over the future of health care, portraying complaints from the Conservative war room as a sign of nervousness.

Liberals posted an online poll Monday asking Canadians which new Harper quote on health care they should use to replace one that was inaccurate.

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"I think they're nervous. They are under attack for the first time on a fundamental question," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Monday in French. "Do you trust Mr. Harper on health care, yes or no? And I think the answer is no."

The flurry of activity began in the morning with phone calls from the Conservatives informing reporters travelling with the Liberal Leader that a recent attack ad on health attributes a quote to Mr. Harper that was in fact written by David Somerville, president of the National Citizens Coalition - an organization that Mr. Harper once led.

Mr. Ignatieff responded by saying the source of the quote was The Globe and Mail and Maclean's. The Globe then published a correction Monday related to an Aug. 25, 2010 column that misattributed the quote.

Liberals note the ad has been running for several days without comment from the Conservatives. While all three national parties are promising to continue spending 6 per cent more each year on health transfers to the provinces, Mr. Ignatieff argues the Conservative numbers "don't ad up" because Mr. Harper has made expensive long term promises related to fighter jets, income splitting, prisons and corporate tax cuts.

The Conservatives counter that they are focused on the economy and a strong economy is the best way to ensure Ottawa has the money to spend on health care. The NDP, for its part, says neither the Conservatives, nor the Liberals can be trusted on the issue.

Mr. Ignatieff noted that the Conservatives have been taking his quotes out of context in ad campaigns for years.

"I've had five years of malicious, selective misquotation of my work. But that is no excuse. If there is misquotation in any campaign, then that's unacceptable. The fact that they did it to me doesn't make it acceptable," he said, in relation to the Conservative objections regarding the quote. "I don't want us to go down this road. They went down that road and I don't want to go down there with them."

Yet after saying that, he went on to say the gloves are off at this point in the campaign.

"It's getting tight. The heat's on. They dish it out but they can't take it," he said. "We're saying: 'Gloves off. Let's have a real serious debate on this issue.' It's a fundamental issue. This is about values."

The Liberals will not be taking the ad off the air, as the Tories demanded.

"We're going to replace the quote with one of the many other comments Stephen Harper has made attacking public health care in Canada - and we've got plenty to choose from," Ignatieff spokeswoman Leslie Church told The Globe Monday.

"The question for Mr Harper now is whether he stands by the view that the CHA should be 'replaced' or 'overhauled?'"

Ms. Church added that the new ad will be on television by Tuesday.

The original quote - "It's past time the feds scrapped the Canada Health Act" - was used by the Liberals in their attack ad, and attributed to Mr. Harper.

The TV spot had been running for six days before the Tories found the misquote. Then they seized upon it, accusing the Liberals of fabricating the line and calling on them to pull the ad.

"There is no excuse - not even the desperation of a flailing campaign - that justifies the Ignatieff decision to take someone else's words and pass them off as Mr. Harper's," Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne said in a statement issued to the press. "Mr. Ignatieff must pull the false ad immediately. His campaign should apologize, not to us, but to Canadians, for trying to mislead them."

But the Liberals fired back with a series of quotations from Mr. Harper and what they are calling "his controversial views on the Canada Health Act."

"In 1997, when Harper was vice-president of the National Citizens' Coalition, a group obsessed with privatizing health care, he said: "Well I think it would be a good idea. … Moving toward alternatives, including those provided by the private sector, is a natural development of our health care system.'"

There are other quotes from Mr. Harper, including just last week when he said during the English-language leaders debate: "Governments across this country have experimented with alternative service delivery. … We're not going to wave the finger at provinces because they experiment with different delivery."

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