Ignatieff tells West Van crowd Liberal government would gather first ministers on health care

Michael Ignatieff is upping the ante on health care, saying a Liberal government would summon Canada's premiers and territorial leaders for a health-care summit meeting within 60 days of taking office.

It's urgent that talks get underway on new health-care funding arrangements and ``system-wide reforms'' to secure medicare's future in Canada, the Liberal leader said Sunday in Vancouver.

The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats have all promised to maintain a six-per-cent annual increase in health-care transfers to the provinces, even after the current agreement expires in 2014.

But Ignatieff _ who is facing a tight race with the Tories and NDP in British Columbia _ argues the Liberals are the only party who can be trusted with the health-care file.

He accused Stephen Harper of neglecting medicare during his time as prime minister, with no new spending and no talks with the provinces for years.

``Harper gets into government and he doesn't take any leadership in health for five years _ nothing,'' Ignatieff said in Vancouver.

``He puts the six per cent in, but there's no leadership to improve the system, to work together to make the system work more effectively.''

Ignatieff has enlisted the help of former prime minister Paul Martin, who negotiated the country's current health accord in 2004, to bolster the party's image as strong managers of the country's economy.

As finance minister in the 1990s, Martin helped turn an inherited Tory deficit into a string a surpluses, largely by cutting transfers to the provinces.

With Martin's 2004 accord set to expire in 2014, Ignatieff said it's urgent that negotiations begin now to chart the next phase of the future of health care.

Some leaders, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, have used the election to call for a new 10-year deal on health care with the federal government.

Ignatieff already promised to focus on improving home care and prescription drug coverage, and to implement a national food policy to help Canadians cut back on salt, fat and sugar.

He insists he's running a campaign of hope rather than fear like Harper, but the Liberal campaign has taken a more ominous tone as the May 2 vote looms.

The party released an attack ad earlier this week _ complete with a flatlining heart monitor _ warning that Harper would slash health care and privatize services to rebalance the federal books.

The Conservatives fired back, saying the Liberals slashed health-care funding when they were in power.

``It is a little rich that Michael Ignatieff is talking about health care when he is campaigning with Paul Martin who cut $25 billion from healthcare in 1990s,'' Tory spokesman Ryan Sparrow wrote in an email.

But Sparrow wouldn't say whether the Tories would match Ignatieff's pledge to talk to provincial and territorial leaders.

The crossfire over health care isn't about ``name calling,'' Martin said. It's about fundamental differences in the Conservative and Liberal approach to attacking the deficit.

When he brought down the 1995 budget that rebalanced the federal books, what scared him the most was ``just how close we were to the tipping point,'' he said.

It saved Canada from the kind of financial crises that have gripped countries like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, Martin added.

``The fact is, when you cross that tipping point, when you get into that kind of difficulty and you take a look at what happens, you make cuts in areas that you would never believe possible,'' he said.

``And I did not _ and we did not _ want to see that happen. We wanted to make sure that we could protect our health care system, that we could protect our transfers to the provinces, that we could protect our social programs.''

The Liberals were honest with Canadians about the country's financial plight and made ``some minor cuts in areas,'' he said. But the Tories wanted them to go further.

As soon as the red ink was eliminated, the Liberals began reinvesting in services, Martin said.

Ignatieff was spreading that message at a feverish pace along B.C.'s Lower Mainland on Sunday, where he took part in two town halls, a round table and even managed to stop at a Vancouver bakery to pick up a few sweets.

Ignatieff purchased a fruit cake for the journalists travelling with him _ riffing off a reporter's recent suggestion that his stump speech urging supporters to ``Rise up!'' against government abuses might appear nutty.

But the tables were turned when Ignatieff was challenged by guerilla journalist Nardwuar to perform the ``hip flip'' game.

Ignatieff obliged as the crowd of hundreds packed into a North Vancouver ballroom roared with laughter.

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