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politics: morning buzz

1. Culture-war report. Stephen Harper's chief election strategist deliberately used the CBC complaints process and "paranoia-tinged" language to raise money for the Conservatives and to "overwhelm" and "intimidate" the office, the public broadcaster's ombudsman says in a report that completely exonerates EKOS pollster Frank Graves.

In his seven-page report, released late yesterday, Vince Carlin examines the 800 notes received by his office concerning Mr. Graves, who many Conservatives charge is a Liberal partisan providing tainted polls to the CBC.

Mr. Graves is one of four national pollsters who provide semi-regular surveys to the public broadcaster. He recently touched off a firestorm after he was quoted in a Globe and Mail column suggesting Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals launch a "culture war" against the Tories.

Conservative Party president John Walsh immediately complained to the CBC about Mr. Graves, arguing that using a partisan pollster raises "serious questions about the impartiality of Canada's publicly funded national broadcaster."

At the same time, Senator Doug Finley sent out fundraising letters urging supporters to give the party money to fight this "powerful array of vested interests" and to write to the CBC to "tell them it's unacceptable to present Frank Graves as a neutral pollster on party politics." Mr. Finley is a master at raising money on the back of anti-CBC campaigns.

In his report, meanwhile, the CBC ombudsman says the broadcaster is not biased, that Mr. Graves does not work for the Liberal Party and he does not make "partisan statements" in his television commentary. Mr. Carlin also says the pollster's data or findings have never been challenged.

If Mr. Graves is guilty of anything, the ombudsman says, it is being too open in explaining his data - so open, in fact, that if he were actually working for the Liberals they would probably fire him for blabbing about strategy.

"Ordinary citizens might not know this, but anyone who has worked in the 'hot house' of Ottawa politics would know that pollsters are much in love with their data and many will expound on it to virtually anyone, unless, of course, the pollster were working for a party. They would then keep that data very close," Mr. Carlin says.

"It appears to me that Mr. Graves may have suffered from this malady to a greater degree than others, but I can find no evidence that he was working for any party. Given his quoted comments on the leader of the Liberal Party, it appears to me he might not have kept any such putative contract for long."

As well, Mr. Carlin notes that "every government - Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chrétien, Martin and, now, Harper - has seen the press, and the CBC specifically, as 'hostile' to their intentions."

And he points out some hypocrisy in the way in which the Conservatives treated the pollster.

"It is interesting to note that, while Mr. Graves was excoriated for what appears to be, unfortunately, commonplace political advice to play up to your own audience, and play hard (invoking the 'Culture War' simile), Mr. Finley used the same device with the rather paranoia-tinged 'powerful array of vested interests' allegedly opposing the Party," Mr. Carlin says.

"One may wonder about the power and array of these interests since the government has survived in a minority Parliament for five years. In fact the last EKOS poll released to the CBC showed an uptick in support for the Conservative Party."

The ombudsman concludes that, whatever political views may be held by Mr. Graves, he is not a CBC journalist and there is no "serious suggestion that the process has been skewed."

"There was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices," he writes.

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2. Taxing talking points. Stephen Harper's Conservatives are trying to build the case that Michael Ignatieff is all about raising taxes. "Ignatieff's Liberals will raise taxes on Canadian families to pay for big, grandiose spending programs that don't address the needs of Canadians," Tory strategists say in their latest set of talking points.

They are characterizing the Liberal Leader as "intellectually bankrupt" over taxes and the economy. "[On Monday] at an exclusive $500-a-plate dinner at a ritzy Toronto hotel, Michael Ignatieff demonstrated his intellectual bankruptcy when it comes to taxes and the economy," the Tories say.

"Ignatieff reiterated his plea to impose massive job-killing business taxes on Canadians from coast to coast to coast. This is on top of his plans to impose GST hikes and a carbon tax on everything.

"These are the facts, no matter how much Ignatieff tries to change the channel."

Liberals counter that the Tories are completely out to lunch. "We are not planning to raise taxes. But the Conservatives already did. Payroll taxes. $13 billion worth of it, which according to major business organizations will kill 250,000 jobs," a senior Ignatieff official says.

"Add the new airport tax. Add the 25 per cent growth of government spending. Add the largest deficit in the history of Canada. So the tax and spend Conservatives are in a strange position to talk about sound economic management."

The official notes that Liberals want to freeze the additional corporate tax cuts to help fight the deficit and invest in areas to make Canada more competitive. "So we are more in a 'pay as you go' frame of mind," he says. "The Conservatives are stuck with George W. Bush ideas. And we know where that led."

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