Skip to main content

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at a press conference in Toronto, Ont., on Saturday, April 9, 2011.Nathan Denette

Michael Ignatieff charged the Tories will sacrifice health care to pay for their election promises - that's the only conclusion he can draw after the Conservatives could not explain an $11-billion hole in their platform.

"Seventeen days ago we had some numbers," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters at a press conference in downtown Toronto Saturday, referring to the March 22 Conservative budget. "And hey presto, 17 days later, whoops we have a whole new set of numbers. Go figure."

Stephen Harper's Conservatives released their platform Friday; it includes a promise to balance the books a year earlier than they had laid out in their March budget. It also includes a promise to continue the annual six per cent increase to health care transfers to the provinces - a pledge that wasn't in the budget.

In addition, the Conservatives cannot explain how they found $11-billion in savings that wasn't in the budget.

"This attacks their basic credibility as a government, as managers," said Mr. Ignatieff. "Mr. Flaherty ... he doesn't know what he is talking about. He cannot tell you where this $11-billion of savings is going to come from, and the conclusion I draw is it is going to come out of health care."

Mr. Ignatieff pledged Friday that a Liberal government would continue the six-per cent health care funding to provinces past 2014. A few hours later the Tories came out with the same promise - a surprise given that it was not in their March budget - in their platform.

Mr. Ignatieff called an $11-billion cut "slash and burn" and said it "will have a devastating effect on the capacity of the government of Canada to serve our citizens."

"What matters here is who's going to get hurt. Immigrant services will get hurt, EI might get hurt ... and above all health care," he said. "How are you supposed to go into the 2014 Health Accords with budget numbers that don't add up?"

He played up his concerns over health care later at a barbecue in Vaughan, a riding north of Toronto. At the rally, Mr. Ignatieff told about 300 supporters that if they vote for Mr. Fantino or Stephen Harper, they "don't get a vote for health care in this country."

The Conservative war room jumped all over Mr. Ignatieff's statements, claiming that the $11-billion hole is "fictitious".

Instead, they say they are going to find $11-billion of cumulative savings over four years through the Strategic Operating Review - $1 billion in 2012-2013, $2 billion in 2013-2014, and it will be fully implemented at $4 billion for 2014-2015.

"If you wanted to add that number cumulatively you could come up with any number of billions of dollars, but what we're saving is $4 billion a year going forward," said Conservative official Chisholm Pothier. "In terms of overall government spending (at around $280 billion) that is less than two per cent."

He says "this will not be a painful exercise, and we will absolutely not cut transfers to provinces or individuals."

No doubt Canadians will hear more about the health-care issue and the curious Tory numbers from Mr. Ignatieff in the first leaders' debate Tuesday in Ottawa.

It is a crucial moment for all leaders - a time in the campaign when Canadians may really start to focus on the issues.

Mr. Ignatieff is the only one of four leaders who has not participated in such a debate before.

He admitted Saturday that he is "nervous" and will be walking into the debate with "apprehension." But, he says, he is looking forward to the one-on-one portion of the debate with Mr. Harper, who he says is his only competition in the election campaign.

Mr. Ignatieff was in Vaughan to shore up his party's effort to take it back from Conservative Julian Fantino, who won it in a by-election last year. It had been a Liberal riding since 1988.

In the 2008 election, under Stephane Dion's leadership, about 800,000 Liberals stayed home and did not vote. This cost the Liberals seats in the Toronto area as well as in other parts of the country.

This time around, Mr. Ignatieff is hoping to get that vote out, declaring confidently Saturday that the Liberal "base is back."

Interact with The Globe