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An infuriated Stephen Harper has accused Michael Ignatieff of "playing politics with the lives of the men and women in uniform" by opposing Ottawa's decision to spend $16-billion on new fighter jets, opening a new front in the debate between military might and health care.

Mr. Harper is portraying himself as standing tall to protect Canadian sovereignty, while Mr. Ignatieff's party contrasts what it calls "Tory planes and prisons" with Liberal promises of help for homecare.

The debate over the Joint Strike Fighter purchase is one of several contrasts that both parties appear eager to embrace. Who ultimately triumphs in an election that is expected in months will say a lot about what Canadians want from government in the difficult decade ahead.

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Mr. Harper was visiting an aerospace manufacturer in Winnipeg on Thursday to promote the contract for the new Lockheed-Martin F-35s. Successive Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have been working to replace the aging F-18 fleet since 1997.

Mr. Harper's decision to come to Winnipeg on this particular day was likely not coincidental. Mr. Ignatieff was also here, for one of the town halls that are a prominent part of his schedule this fall. Mr. Harper clearly wanted both to steal the local spotlight and to sharpen the distinctions between the Conservative and the Liberal approach to the aircraft.

Mr. Ignatieff wants a review of the decision, with an eye to sending it to an open competition. That position, when he was asked about it at a press conference in the plant, disturbed the Prime Minister's typically calm public demeanour.

"To do what Mr. Ignatieff and his allies suggest now is to put in jeopardy every single job in this room and every single job that depends on the aerospace industry with no possible upside whatsoever for the Canadian air force," he said. "Their position here is playing politics with the lives of our men and women in uniform and the jobs of the people in this room, and we will not stand for it."

Mr. Ignatieff called Mr. Harper's remarks "offensive" and "absurd." The Liberals, he said in a phone interview, are only asking "legitimate questions that have to be answered before any sensible Canadian will agree to buy these planes."

Mr. Ignatieff's case received a powerful endorsement on Thursday in the Commons defence committee from a former senior public servant, who said the purchase was a great mistake.

"When the government made the decision to sole source for the [F-35]as our next jet aircraft, I was disappointed," Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister for military procurement, told the committee. "I could not understand why they took this decision." He argued for an open competition to select the new fighter.

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When asked about Mr. Williams's comments at a press conference at the factory, Mr. Harper replied sharply: "His advice was very different at the time he was actually paid to give it." Mr. Williams, when told at the committee meeting of the remarks, described them as "absolutely a lie. … I take great offence at that."

Mr. Harper told the workers at Bristol Aerospace Ltd., which has an $11-million contract to work on the fighters, that they were "helping to provide our government with the tools it needs to defend our sovereignty, which is, after all, the very first duty of any government of Canada."

Abandoning the commitment to the F-35, Mr. Harper said, would cost aerospace firms billions of dollars in contracts to help build the new fighter, while delaying a replacement for the CF-18.

The Liberals insist that there is plenty of time to hold an open competition, which they say could lower the cost of the replacement and potentially provide even more business for Canadian firms.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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