Ignatieff says Harper dishes it out but can't take it

DECISION 2011: Liberal leader refuses to back off aggressive health attack on Tories.

DETTAH, N.W.T. -The Liberals say they will amend an attack ad on health care that misquotes Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but the thrust of the message won't change.

Leader Michael Ignatieff, campaigning Monday in Yellowknife, acknowledged the need to correct the record if the ad does indeed misquote the prime minister.

But the Liberal leader is making no apologies for his ``vigorous defence'' of health care, which he insists will erode under Harper's watch.

``I've had five years of malicious selective misquotation of my work, but that is no excuse,'' he said after touring a training facility.

``If there is misquotation in any campaign, then that's not acceptable. The fact that they did it to me doesn't make it acceptable if we find that something's inaccurate in our ad.''

The Tories have been attacking him in their ads for months, he added.

The Liberal ad, which has been airing on TV for a week, accuses Harper of saying the Canada Health Act should be scrapped.

The Conservatives said the comments actually belong to David Somerville, the former head of the National Citizens Coalition, and they demanded the Liberals pull the ad and offer an apology.

The Liberals know the remarks belong to Somerville, because they correctly attributed it to him in 2004.

``Michael Ignatieff is misleading Canadians with a fabricated quote in his desperate new attack ad,'' said Tory campaign manager Jenni Byrne.

Ignatieff defended the quote, saying it was taken from ``extremely reputable sources,'' including Macleans magazine and the Globe and Mail. The Globe later corrected its story, prompting the Liberals to say they would change the ad.

The Liberals tried to put a positive spin on it by inviting the public to go online and help choose a new Harper quote on health care.

The choices included Harper's recent debate musings about ``alternative ways'' to deliver health care and an excerpt from a 2001 letter he wrote calling for provinces to raise their own revenue for health care.

The most popular quote will be incorporated in a fresh cut of the original attack ad, the party said.

The incident was reminiscent of another misquote mishap in 2009, when Harper _ attending the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy _ wrongly attributed a remark to his Liberal rival.

He acknowledged the error, for which a Harper aide took responsibility, and apologized to Ignatieff.

Ignatieff has insisted that he's running on a campaign of hope rather than the kind of fear he says Harper is fostering.

But the ad controversy raised further questions about whether Ignatieff has strayed from the high road.

Ignatieff said he doesn't want to plunge the election debate into the gutter. But he suggested that the Tories are getting desperate by bringing up the ad a week after it first aired, and challenged them to ``bring it on.''

``It's getting tight-the heat's on,'' Ignatieff said. ``They dish it out but they can't take it. And we're saying, 'Gloves off, let's have a real serious debate on this issue.'''

The debate is really about how the Liberals and Conservatives differ in their approach to health care, he added.

Harper has made his choice clear: he's committed himself to ``jets, jails and corporate tax giveaways'' and won't have the cash to meet his commitments to health care, Ignatieff said.

``You can't trust Mr. Harper on health care, 'cause you can't trust him on democracy,'' he said.

Health care has figured prominently in Ignatieff's campaign in recent days, amid public opinion polls that suggest the Liberals continue to trail the Conservatives.

He enlisted the help of former prime minister Paul Martin _ who presided over the current provincial-federal agreement on health-care funding _ to slam Harper on health care in Vancouver and Edmonton.

A call for donations sent out by the party under Martin's name warned that ``there are just 14 short days remaining to save our cherished universal health care system.''

The email urges supporters to ``rise up'' and donate money so the party can run more hard-hitting television ads.

The Liberals picked an unusual spot Monday to tout their health-care credentials _ a training facility for the mining industry, which would normally serve as the backdrop for an announcement on jobs or the economy.

Ignatieff tried to blend the two, arguing that his pledge to attract more doctors and nurses to northern communities will provide more jobs for young people.

He flew to Winnipeg later in the day and joined Liberal candidate Anita Neville and her extended family for a seder _ a traditional Jewish meal that marks the beginning of Passover.

The host couldn't resist a friendly joke about Ignatieff's new mantra for voters to ``rise up!'' against government abuses.

Speaking about the Passover tradition of eating unleavened bread, the host said: ``For the duration of the meal at least, there will be no need to rise up at any point.''

The table erupted in laughter.

``We can start again with that tomorrow and carry on.''

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