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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ignatieff accuses Tories of dividing Canadians with hot-button politics Add to ...

In a sharper-than-usual broadside against Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff is using the latest stop on a fundraising tour to frame the Conservative government as cynical tacticians who are reopening the divisive abortion debate for political gain.

The Liberal Leader is trying to capitalize on the bitter controversy surrounding Mr. Harper's refusal to fund developing-world abortions as part of a Group of Eight maternal health initiative. This fits with Mr. Ignatieff's broader effort to paint the Conservatives as dividers who purposely drive political wedges between voters on hot-button issues from gays to guns to global warming.

"Recently, the Conservatives have accused us of trying to start a culture war," Mr. Ignatieff told a Liberals dinner in Toronto on Monday night.

"But let's be clear: we didn't end the 25-year consensus on a woman's right to choose. They did," he told the $500-a-plate crowd of close to 1,000 at the Sheraton Centre Hotel.

"We didn't cut [funding for]Gay Pride in Toronto and Francofolies in Montreal. They did," Mr. Ignatieff said of the Tories.

"We didn't attack the CBC. They did."

Precisely who in Canada is fomenting a culture war - a conflict over values used by politicians to drive voters into their camp - has been a hotly debated subject this spring. Pollster Frank Graves suggested the Liberals themselves start one before retracting his comments. And Mr. Harper later alleged the Liberals were trying to spark a culture war over the maternity cash.

Mr. Ignatieff returned fire Monday night, saying the Tories are the original culture warriors, having sought for years to fracture the electorate to their advantage. He reeled off a list of what he said are examples of this divide-and-conquer approach.

"We didn't divide rural and urban Canada over gun control. They did," he said.

"We didn't tell women's groups to 'shut the [pause]up' or lose their funding. They did."

Mr. Ignatieff's caustic attacks - road-testing future campaign messages - are being made as the parties look to the fall of 2010 or early 2011 as the likeliest opportunities for another election. Recent opinion surveys suggest an election today would change little in federal politics, where the Tories maintain a lead over the second-place Liberals - even after weeks of controversy over former minister Helena Guergis and Afghan detainees.

The Liberals find themselves in the unenviable position of watching the governing Tories emerge politically unscathed from the recession.

Mr. Ignatieff's central pitch to voters, laid out in the speech, is that the Liberals can deliver the same economic benefits but with cash left over for concerns that worry middle-class adults. He's promising more compassionate leave support for those who must care for elderly parents; more cash for the postsecondary education and measures to protect and build retirement nest eggs.

"We remain what we always have been, the big tent of [the]progressive centre of Canadian politics. And we always will be."

Mr. Ignatieff tried to take credit for Canada's economic performance, saying the country's relatively strong showing amid a global downturn is the result of more than a decade of Liberal government that included balanced budgets, tax cuts and steady bank regulation.

He contrasted this record with what he characterized as the nasty politicking of the Tories.

"Our opponents attack us without ceasing and, occasionally, they pretend to run the government of Canada."

Mr. Ignatieff sought to frame the Liberals as fiscally prudent but not hidebound by ideology, repeating his party's promise to freeze planned future corporate tax cuts and use the money for deficit reduction and spending.

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