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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 7: The Trotsky of Conservatives 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: Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 10:01 p.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

John, earlier this week I had an op-ed published in The Globe saying that you can't expect statements made by political parties to be entirely true. That doesn't mean truth isn't important; it just means party statements are not the place to find it. But it's important for others to examine these statements objectively. I have big problems with three positions the Liberals have taken to beat up on the Conservatives: jets, jails and corporate taxes.

1) The Liberals now say they would cancel an order for the F-35 stealth jets and hold an open competition. But in the early 1990s, Jean Chrétien's Liberal government joined a consortium to develop these jets. He must have thought stealth jets were the way to go. And Michael Ignatieff must know that there are no other stealth jets on the market. So why has he thrown Ti-Jean under the bus? It looks suspiciously like opportunism designed to oppose the Tory fighter commitment.

2) The Liberals say they oppose the Conservative program of building jails. But the Liberals voted for all the legislation that, they now say, will produce too many prisoners. Moreover, the Liberal platform does not promise to repeal this legislation or to cancel the amount in Jim Flaherty's budget for prison construction. More opportunism on the assumption that voters have short memories.

3) The Liberals started corporate tax reduction under Paul Martin. Maybe it was even your idea; you were part of Mr. Martin's team. Most Liberals also abstained a year or two when the schedule of corporate tax cuts was legislated in the budget. That is, they deliberately allowed the corporate tax cuts to be passed into law. Now they want to repeal them.

What's your view on the truthiness of these leading Liberal positions? As always, I'm happy to be corrected on issues of fact.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 7, 8:25 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Tom, tempted as I am to spring to the defence of my party, I think I'll leave that job to the partisan spinners out there. I would, however, make a couple of observations.

Let's start with taxes, because they are the most important item on your list. Yes, Mr. Martin put corporate taxes on a reduction track, and did the same thing with personal income taxes. Delivered record surpluses as well, and invested billions in the social safety net and human capital agendas Canadian families care about. Stephen Harper, by contrast, made an economically useless cut to the GST leaving us vulnerable to deficits in a downturn - which then came to pass - and is silent on the future of medicare as on so many other issues. So, sure, if I were running surpluses and topping up human capital investments and had more money in the till than I needed, I too would cut corporate income taxes. Glad Mr. Martin did it. But that's not the situation we're in, let alone the one that Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty have put us into.

Speaking of the good old days (okay, maybe my partisan blood is stirring), let's talk about the jets. If Mr. Chrétien has anything to be miffed about in Mr. Ignatieff's running against the F-35 stealth fighter program, it should be theft of intellectual property, not the legacy betrayal you assert. Recall le p'tit gars running in 1993 against the Conservatives' $5.8-billion plan to purchase EH-101 helicopters. The issue dominated Ottawa in the run-up to the writ period. Mr. Chretien went to town on it, then triumphed in forcing an error on Ms. Campbell when she tried to please both sides by cutting the purchase into two phases. Mr. Chrétien spent much of the subsequent campaign mocking her, until fresh errors on Ms. Campbell's part made the helicopter blunder yesterday's news.

Mr. Martin would be similarly miffed. In the 2004 campaign, Mr. Harper's plan to purchase an aircraft carrier made for a telling case in point, as our campaign fought to draw a contrast that your campaign was (as I recall it) trying equally furiously to blur. "We want health care; he wants aircraft carriers" was a good line, and good politics for the Liberals. We even stuck an aircraft carrier into our comparative television advertising. My point is that Liberals are never shy about running against big-ticket defence items. And Canadians frequently respond.

As for jails, I am quite glad to see the Grits standing up in some measure to the excesses of Mr. Harper's justice policy agenda. Pretty much every expert on crime and justice in this country agrees that crime rates are falling. Absurdities such as Stockwell Day's assertion that it's the "unreported crime" that's going up were the stuff of water-cooler laughter last summer. The provinces are in open rebellion over being stuck with the costs of administering Mr. Harper's judicial overkill. I'm glad the Grits have found a way to take this issue on, without pooh-poohing the legitimate concerns of those who are particularly vulnerable to crime, such as women and seniors.

That's my take on the taxes issue, and on the government's economic record in general. What's yours?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, April 7, 2011, 12:51 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

John, I can agree with some of your answers more than others.

On corporate tax cuts, your answer seems to be that we can't afford more of them right now because of the size of the deficit. I could agree with that answer, except that the Liberal platform commitment is to take all the revenue "saved" by canceling the cuts (experts like Jack Mintz aren't so sure these purported savings are real) and spend it on new social programs. So the concern about the deficit doesn't seem very strong to me.

In all honesty, I couldn't follow your answer on the F-35. You seem to be saying that because the Liberals at one time opposed buying new helicopters and a new aircraft carrier, they should now oppose buying new jets. That sounds more like the NDP. The Liberals have never opposed the use of military force in principle, they committed us to a war in Afghanistan, and they have supported the Libyan intervention.

The Liberals know the F-18 fighters can't last forever; that's why Mr. Chrétien put Canada into the stealth fighter program. So what's different now? If stealth fighters looked like a good idea 10 years ago, why not now?

And if the Liberals are so opposed to the expansion of prisons, why won't they commit to repealing the legislation (which they supported at the time) that allegedly will increase the number of prisons? If they leave the legislation in place and don't increase prison space, they will condemn prisoners to overcrowding and lessened opportunities for rehabilitation. It seems to me the Liberals are trying to have it both ways on this one. I note that reporters were after Mr. Ignatieff on this point this morning, and he did not answer their questions.

Fell free some day to ask me about Conservative positions if you like. Some I support, some I don't, and I'm happy to explain why. As the Trotsky of the Conservative revolution, I don't have to follow a party line.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 7, 3:27 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Tom, if you're the Trotsky, I am dying to know who might be the Stalin in the piece ... ? Anyway, enough Bolshevik politics; the bar isn't even open yet.

On taxes, I guess it's really about the whole context. The choice in budget-making is rarely this versus that. Rather, it's about where you set a series of approximately (and this really is the number I recall being told) 39 policy dials to generate the optimal mix of economic performance and political yield. So I don't see the Liberal position as being "we can't do corporate tax cuts because we can't afford them." For the Liberals, it's more a question of where we put our priorities within the fiscal framework. And according to some tough, non-partisan, career civil-service schoolmasters, Mr. Ignatieff has at least got the fiscal framework more or less right: http://www.3dpolicy.ca/content/liberal-platform-affordable.

As for the F-35, yeah, touché, I was being a bit cute with my answer. You raise a serious point, arguing that the Liberals were for replacing the F-18s and now they apparently aren't. I can't say I have the ins and outs of that one, and instead opted simply to note that Liberals from time to time have been known to shift course on a defence commitment or two, sometimes for reasons that look pretty darn political. I would hope for a serious airing of the matter on the issue in the leaders' debates, but that may be asking for too much.

That leaves the jails. I do not know with what degree of enthusiasm each Liberal MP did or did not support the various instruments through which the jails and other law-and-order measures were moved through the minority Parliament. Certainly, the Grits did not intend to go to the polls on the issue, and that might have played a role in creating the apparent inconsistency you are pointing out. Still, in all, I am glad that the Liberals have found a way now to constructively speak to the Conservative get-tough agenda without overmuch courting the predictable "soft-on-crime" backlash.

Finally, Tom, I am always much more interested in your views than in the twists and turns of party policy and messaging. If more politicians argued forthrightly and broad-mindedly as you do, we'd have a better country. I'll be talking about that, and some other of the hobby horses I've ridden with you here, tonight on The Agenda with Steve Paikin .

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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