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Lawrence Martin

Auditor-General affair stirs debate pot Add to ...

In the 2008 election debates, the dominant performer was the NDP's Jack Layton. Despite being the third party leader, he controlled the pace, the visuals and, with his crisp broadsides, the tone.

Stephen Harper had yet to bring out his platform. Where is it? barked Mr. Layton. "Under your sweater?" On funding for his lavish NDP programs, the Lenin look-alike leaned across the table: "The way we're going to do it, Mr. Harper, is to cancel your tax cuts to Exxon." On alleged inaction on the economy, Mr. Layton gave the Prime Minister a choice of delectable responses: "Either you don't care, or you're incompetent. Which is it?"

The Sun King, as Mr. Harper is sometimes called, didn't take the bait. He responded to Mr. Layton and the other opposition barracudas with seasoned calm. It was as if to say, as Ronald Reagan once put it in rebuffing Jimmy Carter, "Well, there you go again."

The PM will be hard-pressed to show that kind of calm in Tuesday's English-language leaders debate. It was shaping up as a not overly difficult assignment for him until back-to-back bombshells dropped on Monday.

First, there was fresh ammunition for the opposition in the form of a Canadian Press story saying that, according to a draft report by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, the Harper government misinformed Parliament to win approval for millions in G8 summit funding. The money allegedly served as a pork barrel for projects in Conservative precincts having little or nothing to do with the G8.

On top of this came news that Ms. Fraser was wrongly quoted by the Conservatives in a bid to win good reviews for so-called prudent spending on the G8 and G20 summits. In a letter addressed to members of a parliamentary committee on Friday, Ms. Fraser said the quote being used by the Tories had nothing to do with the summits. Her remarks, in fact, were in reference to security spending by a Liberal government. She demanded an apology and, on Monday, received one from the government.

When the Prime Minister's Office starts distorting the words of the Auditor-General, it's serious business. But it should come as no great surprise. The control freaks tried to put her under their grip once before. As part of their vetting scheme, which they wanted to apply to all Ottawa communications, they tried to demand final approval of her press releases as well. "Well I can tell you," she told a committee, "there is no way that my press releases … are going to be vetted." That ended that. But it was astonishing that the attempt was even made.

As for the pork-barrelling revelation, it's difficult to assess its significance without seeing the Auditor-General's final report. But the Conservative track record with regards to Parliament - shutting it down, denying it documents, contempt rulings, trying to make committees dysfunctional etc. - hardly serves to negate suspicion.

In response to the CP story, PMO officials, intriguingly, called for the release of the final Fraser report. They may, in fact, know something the opposition doesn't - that there isn't much evidence of anything damaging in it. In that case, the whole drama could boomerang on the opposition and work in the government's favour.

To any attacks in Tuesday's debate from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff on abuse of power and the like, Mr. Harper would surely have a response at the ready. As in, "Have you ever heard of the sponsorship scandal?" To which Mr. Ignatieff would respond, "Have you ever heard of Karlheinz Schreiber?"

Until the back-to-back bombshells, Mr. Ignatieff was having a depressing day. Two polls showed he was making up no ground on the Harper government. But, with Tuesday's debate, allegations of yet more abuse of power by this government give Mr. Ignatieff another opportunity.

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