Plagiarism charge is a low blow

Is this what public discourse has come to? War-room tactics and drive-by smears?

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Three weeks into the campaign, and only two weeks before the election, there was a rare intervention on foreign affairs yesterday by Bob Rae, the Liberal spokesperson on foreign policy.

Was it about the future of Canada's mission in Afghanistan? Nope, that was taken care of in the first week, in the only other foreign-policy moment of the campaign, when Stephen Harper announced that Canada would not extend its commitment past 2011 as approved by Parliament.

Was it about Russia's invasion of Georgia? Nyet. Was it an attempt to set the table for the leaders' debates, tonight and tomorrow, by proposing a Liberal agenda on foreign policy? That would have been a welcome change from the 2006 election, when there were four leaders' debates over eight hours, without a single reference to foreign policy. It was a uniquely disgraceful moment.

Well, no, it turns out Rae had another agenda, accusing Stephen Harper of plagiarizing a speech on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 from John Howard, then prime minister of Australia.

Rae illustrated his accusation with side-by-side video clips of Howard's speech to the Australian Parliament two days before Harper spoke in the House, on the day the Americans began their shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad in March 2003.

"This is a disgraceful performance by the leader of a political party for all the world to see, and all the world is going to see it," said Rae, who had worked himself up to being shocked and appalled. "They need to see it because they need to know what we're dealing with here."

He then suggested that Harper should have been expelled from Richview Collegiate in Toronto, where he was the gold medalist on graduation and where he attended his 30th-anniversary reunion last weekend.

Does this work for the Liberals? Well, at this point in the campaign, down double digits to the Conservatives, anything that works for them is good, especially a charge on integrity that inflicts collateral damage because of Iraq and George W. Bush. Moreover, anything that puts someone, anyone, in the window other than the Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, is a good day for the Grits.

Still, plagiarism is a serious charge, one that casts a shadow over Harper's integrity going into the debate. Interestingly, the Liberals played a similar card on the eve of a debate in the last campaign when they released a transcript of a talk Harper had given to some Americans in 1998, basically calling Canada a socialist welfare state.

Plagiarism is not an accusation to be taken lightly in politics. When Joe Biden first sought the Democratic nomination in the 1988, his campaign came to grief when it developed he had borrowed a speech from the leader of a British political party.

Was there a distinct similarity between the two speeches? Absolutely.

But was Harper holding the pen? Or more to the point, doing the clip and paste? That's the question. It's clear from the video that's he's reading from a statement. So the question that obviously arises is, did he staff it out, and if so who was his speechwriter at the time, and could the leader have been given a text that cribbed from another speech without his knowledge? Late yesterday, there might have been an answer when Owen Lippert, who served on Harper's staff in 2003, stepped down from the Conservative campaign.

Harper might be many things, but the thought that he would knowingly plagiarize from another leader's speech is a real stretch.

As a former chief speechwriter to a prime minister for nearly five years. I know something about this business. I also know something about Harper's routine in speeches, which is that he writes most of the important ones himself, on his laptop. This is a real problem in terms of managing the prime minister's time, to say nothing of being bad for the speechwriters' union.

So the big story in the campaign yesterday was whether Harper, as leader of a party that no longer exists, plagiarized a speech five and half years ago from a leader who is no longer in office.

And Bob Rae, who has spent more than a decade rebuilding his own reputation after his disastrous term as premier of Ontario, spent a morning trying to destroy the reputation of someone who has never treated him as anything other than an honourable opponent.

This is what is our public discourse has come to-war room tactics and drive-by smears, to the detriment of us all.

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