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Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, left, and former Prime Minister Paul Martin address the media in Edmonton on Saturday, April 16, 2011.

JONATHAN HAYWARD

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff promises to hold a First Ministers meeting on health care with the provinces and territories in an attempt to show a Liberal government would play a more active role in the issue than the Conservatives.

Standing in Vancouver with former Prime Minister Paul Martin and Vancouver South Liberal candidate Ujjal Dosanjh - two men who worked together to sign the current 10-year health care deal in 2004 - Mr. Ignatieff said Sunday that talks to renew that arrangement must start right away.

"Announcing a first ministers meeting now says how serious we are," said Mr. Ignatieff, who pledged a summit within 60 days of taking office.

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"This doesn't get fixed overnight. This is the biggest expenditures provinces have. They want help. They want us at the table."

The Liberals and Conservatives are fighting to highlight their differences on health care - sparring over a recent Liberal ad campaign that warns the Conservatives will ultimately have to scale back on health spending.

Conservatives counter that it is the Liberals who cut health transfers in the 1990s.

The attacks come despite the fact that both parties pledged during the campaign to maintain increases in health transfers at 6 per cent annually beyond the expiry of the current arrangement in 2014.

The back-to-back promises were a remarkable - and expensive - moment in the campaign; surprising as well because neither party had put the pledge in writing in their platforms. The NDP platform, which came out later, includes a pledge to keep transfers at 6 per cent.

Until that day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had refused to speculate as to Ottawa's bargaining position heading in to the looming health care negotiations.

Mr. Ignatieff rejected the notion that by tipping its hand now, Ottawa loses its bargaining power to extract concessions from the provinces in terms of national reporting standards or a stronger focus on specific areas like drugs and home care.

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"We've got big problems. We've got common problems. The incentive is the size of the problem. We've got health expenditures rising, we've got health care demands pressing on scarce services.

"What we're saying is let's create a 6-per-cent framework that gives us stability to plan and let's look at the problems that we've got in common: Incredibly increasing demand for home care services. Drug care costs rising. What can we do as a country to contain the rise in these drug care costs? It must be more efficient for Canada to think about these problems as a country instead of chopping the problem up into 13 little bits and trying to solve it. That's all we're saying."

As for the Conservative attacks on the Liberal record, Mr. Martin acknowledged cutting health care as finance minister in 1995, but said Stephen Harper and others in opposition wanted him to cut further.

"The fact is the time that when we brought down the deficit, we did make some minor cuts in areas. And what happened was - the Reform-Alliance... that is the current Conservative party, they said you've got to cut much further into health care, you've got to cut into education. They are on the record," said Mr. Martin, who was campaigning with Mr. Ignatieff for the second day in a row.

"The Prime Minister of this country, when he was in opposition, is on record saying he does not believe in the Canada Health Act and he does not believe there is a national role for the federal government in health. This is not name calling. This is a fundamental difference as to one of the basic programs of this country."

Conservative spokesman Ryan Sparrow said his party stands by its record in government, which saw health transfers rise each year.

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"The basis of strong health care is a strong economy," he said in an e-mail. "We are the only party with a comprehensive plan for economic growth. Paul Martin's record on health care speaks for itself."

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