Top Liberal attack dog's pawprints are all over this one

Party is getting way too much mileage out of that dumb cheque gaffe

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's axiomatic in politics that just when things are going well, you can always count on someone on the team to do something really stupid.

Say hello to Gerald Keddy, who slapped a Conservative Party logo on a giant $300,000 cheque he cut for a church group in his riding in Nova Scotia.

We knew the Conservatives had deep pockets, but this is ridiculous. But of course, it's government money, stimulus money, and the cheque should have borne the government of Canada watermark, not the Conservative logo.

A chastened Keddy later acknowledged that "the use of the logo on a cheque representing public funds was inappropriate." For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, it was "a mistake that will not be repeated."

These are basic rules of damage control - admit the mistake, take the hit, and move on. End of story. Next, suivant. Except that the Liberals, desperate to change the conversation from their plunging poll numbers, have blown the story up into a huge diversion.

They called a news conference where they named 181 instances going back to 2007 where Tory members had either used their party logo or signed prop cheques themselves for photo ops in their ridings. This just in: "MP hands over giant cheque." This is about as shocking a headline as "Talk-show star sleeps with staffer."

Liberal MP David McGuinty, not known for understatement, declared: "We believe this is probably the most massive propaganda effort of any kind seen at the federal government level in Canadian history."

His memory is either short or selective. There was something called the sponsorship scandal, that grew out of the Liberal government's effort to show the Canadian flag in Quebec after the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum.

Another Liberal MP, Wayne Easter, held up a door knob to illustrate routine maintenance, as opposed to new infrastructure dollars, on a federal building in Prince Edward Island. He should be careful about having his picture taken with a doorknob--it invites comparisons.

The Liberals then put out a flurry of releases - think of missives flying through Harry Potter's mailbox - saying they were filing complaints against 47 Conservatives MPs for violating conflict-of-interest rules set out in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, which was the dumbest piece of legislation passed by the present government. On Monday, the Liberals put out a follow-up communiqué saying they expanded their target list to something like 83 Tory MPs.

None of which has anything to do with stimulus money reaching its intended beneficiaries and everything to do with tactics out of the Liberal war room. It has the fingerprints of Warren Kinsella, the lead Liberal attack dog, all over it. This is the guy who once famously held up a Barney doll on national television to make the point that Stockwell Day, then leader of the Canadian Alliance, was a political dinosaur. Kinsella is very good at his work, and the Liberals have indeed succeeded in changing the conversation in the last week.

Not that they've succeeded in making any mileage in the House, where the Liberals could turn a nuclear weapon into a wet firecracker.

Consider their feeble follow-up in Monday's question period to a potentially explosive story by Canadian Press's Jennifer Ditchburn that Conservative Senator Leo Housakos worked for a company that was part of a consortium that has received a $1.4-million contract for a feasibility study on improvements to the Champlain Bridge, which as all South Shore residents know, has been under construction since it was completed in the 1960s.

Previously, the Federal Bridge Corp. announced a $212-million upgrade on the bridge, an infrastructure announcement made with great fanfare by Public Works Minister Christian Paradis on the same day last May that Housakos was running a major Tory party fundraiser in Montreal, where a bunch of bidders were among the paying guests at a VIP cocktail. So were a couple of guys from the bridge authority.

Housakos is very close to the prime minister's chief spokesperson, Dimitri Soudas, who was the PM's senior adviser on Quebec until he relinquished that role just a few weeks ago. Nothing happened in Montreal, by way of federal appointments or projects, that the two of them weren't aware of or didn't sign off on. And it might well be that nothing inappropriate has occurred, either. But this is a small town, and people talk a lot about federal appointments and contracts.

In the House on Monday. Transport Minister John Baird got the award for bluster and blarney for the manner in which he defended his department's handling of the bridge file, at arm's length from the bridge authority, a crown corporation. When he dared Liberal Marlene Jennings to take her accusations outside the House, where there is no immunity, she folded.

On a day when the Liberals could have loaded the bases, they never even got to first.

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