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Jeffrey Simpson

What if Stephen Harper's previous views were used against him? Add to ...

The other night, during a hockey game, appeared several of those Conservative attack ads against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

The ads dredged up a quote from 2001, when Mr. Ignatieff was living outside Canada, about feeling American, and another quote about not ruling out an increase in the GST, and one favouring a carbon tax. Mr. Ignatieff has clearly and repeatedly repudiated these positions, yet the Conservative attack ads suggest he still holds them. Not only do these ads deliberately deform Mr. Ignatieff's current thinking, they impugn his motives for returning to Canada. He is held responsible in these ads for views he no longer holds.

Put the shoe on the other foot. If you were a Conservative, would you think it fair or accurate to be hammered today for some of Stephen Harper's previous positions?

In 1999, a right-wing doctor, David Gratzer, wrote a book, Code Blue, that tore apart medicare, suggesting it should be replaced by U.S.-style private medicine and medical savings accounts. Dr. Gratzer now advises Republicans on health care.

Commenting on the book, Mr. Harper said: "Gratzer proposes a workable solution for the biggest policy problem of the coming generation - government-controlled health-care monopoly. Canada needs Gratzer's solution." Mr. Harper's praise appeared on the cover jacket of Code Blue.

As Canadian Alliance and Conservative leader, Mr. Harper never repeated those views. On the contrary, he has repeatedly said he favours Canadian-style medicare. Would it be fair to run an attack against him for views he held in 1999?

Mr. Harper once suggested that, instead of Canada's approach to official bilingualism, we should adopt the Belgian model of parallel institutions for everything, one in English, the other in French. As Prime Minister, he has ditched such thinking and tries to speak French on all official occasions, even in English-speaking parts of Canada. Would it be fair to hold his earlier, foolish views against him?

Mr. Harper once lamented a culture of defeatism and dependency in Atlantic Canada, and had little good to say for regional development agencies. He subsequently recanted those views. As Prime Minister, he has created new regional development agencies for the Far North and Southern Ontario. Should his earlier views be held against him?

Mr. Harper, as a Reform MP and later, while living in Calgary, opposed special status for any province (read Quebec) and hewed to the party's official line that all provinces are equal. As Prime Minister, however, he declared that the Québécois constituted a "nation" within a united Canada. Should he be blasted for his previous position, or debated on the one he now holds?

Mr. Harper, in exile in Calgary, wrote that a "firewall" should be erected around Alberta to protect it from a predatory and insensitive federal government. The Martin Liberals tried to use this inflammatory foolishness against him. Would it be fair to now drag up those comments?

Mr. Harper once co-authored a defence of proportional representation, arguing that it would be in the best interests of small-c conservatives to adopt such a system since they would never form a majority government. He hasn't said a word about PR since re-entering public life. Should he be accused of still harbouring a hidden agenda to impose PR on Canadians?

Mr. Harper once favoured Canada's participation in the invasion of Iraq (Mr. Ignatieff, then at Harvard, favoured the invasion, too). He was part of a political party, Reform, that cast doubt on the science of climate change, a position his government's websites don't support today.

These recollections of some of Mr. Harper's previous positions aren't intended to demean him, but rather to give him the benefit of the doubt, or even of acquired wisdom. He no longer holds these views and shouldn't be lashed for having once held them.

It would be just as inappropriate to tie him to long-abandoned positions as it is for the Conservatives, in their disgusting attack ads, to tie Mr. Ignatieff to positions he's since rejected.

Alas, as we've so often seen, a sense of decency can't be expected of the Conservatives' attack machine.

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