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Did Ontario Liberals dupe rivals into helping them release platform?

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is reflected in a teleprompter as he releases the Liberal party platform in Toronto on Sept. 5, 2011.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Tales of counter-espionage and subterfuge, of moles being strung along and insiders being hung out to dry.

Welcome to ... a provincial election campaign?

It is very hard to know whether the story told by senior Liberals about the way their platform leaked out this past weekend is evidence of tactical brilliance, or just an elaborate effort to cover their own behinds. But it certainly makes for an entertaining yarn.

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This much we know: On Sunday night, with Dalton McGuinty scheduled to release his platform the next day, a strange bit of skulduggery pre-empted him. An audio recording of a conference call earlier that day, in which Mr. McGuinty's staff briefed about 20 fellow Liberals on details of his new agenda, was obtained by The Canadian Press – an apparently successful effort by a disgruntled party member to embarrass the Liberal Leader.

But according to sources on Mr. McGuinty's campaign, it was all a clever trap – one in which they duped their rivals into helping them release their platform.

By their account, they realized last winter that there was a mole in their midst – someone who was taping conference calls and providing information to the rival Progressive Conservatives. Rather than confront that person, they say, they subsequently used the mole to selectively leak information they wanted to have leaked – and were waiting for one really big opportunity to do so.

They settled on leaking contents of the platform, they say, because they realized that the Reform Party's leaks of the federal Liberals' platforms back in 1997 and 2000 actually worked to the Liberals' advantage by allowing more of their policies to get attention.

That they have not been willing to share the name of the alleged mole casts some doubt on their version of events. And naturally, the Tories are laughing the story off, with a senior official from Tim Hudak's campaign calling it "utterly ridiculous and paranoid."

On the other hand, the way the long weekend played out does lend a hint of plausibility.

If the Liberals orchestrated the leak, it would explain why the biggest item in their platform – a major tuition break for post-secondary students – was not mentioned in the conference call. This way, other promises – such as a pledge to expand train service for suburban commuters – got more attention than would otherwise have been the case. And when the tuition freeze was revealed on Monday, it not only got a very clean news hit; it also caught off guard the Liberals' opponents, who thought they knew all the platform's key planks.

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In general, there wound up being more coverage of the platform than would normally have happened – exactly what the Liberals say they were aiming for. And it appears likely the Tories played a part in it.

But for Mr. McGuinty's campaign to knowingly feed a mole on that conference call, which was mostly with Liberals who work the talking-head circuit on the party's behalf, would have required them to willingly sow unhappiness in their own ranks.

By the Liberals' account, only two or three of them were aware of this strategy. (Even Mr. McGuinty was supposedly in the dark.) Others on the call, including former deputy premier George Smitherman and long-time strategist (and Globe and Mail blogger) Andrew Steele, openly questioned aspects of the platform and wound up getting unwanted attention in The Canadian Press story. And even some of the campaign staff who were doing the briefing don't seem to have been aware it was for public consumption.

Whether other Liberals will be heartened by this version of accounts, or view it as evidence of turmoil at their party's top, is also an open question.

All this is likely to be a footnote by the end of the campaign. But it goes some way toward showing the extent to which all sides are jockeying for advantage in what it expected to be an extremely competitive election.

Someone got outmanoeuvred by the weekend's spy games, but neither side is prepared to admit it was them.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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