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I can't believe that you believe what you just said....

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The headline for today’s post comes from an actual question asked at a news conference I attended back in 1995 in Ottawa.The tobacco lobby had come to the nation’s capital to rant against the Liberal government’s proposed restrictions on tobacco advertising. To press its point, the lobby brought along a number of the race car drivers sponsored by cigarette-maker Players. There, the handsome (if not surprisingly diminutive) drivers told us that without Players, they wouldn’t have become the hotshots they had become. And despite the fact that every inch of their clothing was covered in logos for the cigarettes made by their sponsors, they all claimed they were not, you know, promoting tobacco use.This was the assertion made several times by Greg Moore, a successful driver who was tragically killed in 1999. Looking every inch the clear-eyed, smooth-skinned non-smoker he was, Moore insisted that he was not doing anything to convince race fans to smoke cigarettes. A grizzled reporter from the Canadian Press then asked the question of all news conference questions: “Mr. Moore. Quite frankly, I’m having trouble believing that you believe what you just said.”I was reminded of that event this morning while reading this article by conservative activist Ezra Levant in the National Post. Mr. Levant, stalwart of the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, weighed in with a first-person rant to support the argument that the Conservative Party of Canada could never, ever have tried to bribe former MP Chuck Cadman into voting against the Liberals in 2005.To prove his point, Levant turned to an account of his now infamous 2002 battle with Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the Canadian Alliance nomination in Calgary Southwest. Levant had won the nomination in February of that year but when Harper was elected Alliance leader the next month, the party asked Levant to step aside to give Harper a clear, safe shot at entering the House of Commons in a by-election called for May. Levant argues in his Nat Post article (also posted on his website) that he knows the party did not try to bribe Cadman into bringing down the Liberal government because it refused to bribe him to give up the Calgary Souhtwest nomination.(I can only imagine the unbridled joy gripping Conservatives this morning now that Mr. Levant has taken up the cause of defending the Conservatives in a scandal that is fast becoming political quicksand. Especially since in his effort, Levant has decided to dredge up an event that, at the very least, was considered by many in the Alliance a black eye for the new leader.)To make Mr. Levant’s long story shorter, Harper did in fact ask him to step aside. Levant refused at first, but after the party howled and pleaded, he relented and gave up the nomination. By not adhering to (IMHO) one of the more honorable Parliamentary traditions - where backbenchers in safe seats step aside for leaders - Levant made Harper look like a hypocrite who was only interested in the much-celebrated “grass roots” as long as they didn’t queer his own career plans.What is most fascinating about Mr. Levant’s account of the behind-the-scenes negotiations with senior Alliance advisor Tom Flanagan was that he admits he asked for compensation. “So as it became clear that a conflict over Calgary Southwest was coming,” Levant wrote, “we put out feelers to Flanagan to see what consideration might be offered should I step aside. Would my nomination expenses be covered? Would I receive a paid position with the party? Would my personal debts be paid? Such crass inquiries were all but ignored by Flanagan, even as an embarrassing clash between us loomed in the media. In purely pragmatic terms, Flanagan had every incentive to give me an offer --even an offer he didn’t intend to keep -- just to make Harper’s entry smoother. But he didn’t.”By refusing Levant’s admittedly “crass” demands, Mr. Flanagan (one of the two men who visited Cadman) was demonstrating that he wasn’t then, nor could he ever be, in the business of buying someone’s allegiance or assistance.There are a couple of things Mr. Levant is not telling people in his article today. The first thing is that there was a good reason hea sked for financial compensation. In the Canadian political system, parties and riding associations maintain accounts containing hundreds of thousands of dollars of slush money that remains outside of the control of the Chief Electoral Officer. There are limits on what candidates can spend in any general election, but no limits on what they can raise. Thus, any money raised above and beyond campaign needs goes into the riding association bank accounts, or is remitted to national party accounts. Once there, it can be (and routinely is) spent on whatever the party wants it to be spent on, even though at the front end the donors did receive a government tax receipt.This has allowed parties to “compensate” people who need to be compensated. Leaders can be provided with a bit of extra money to pay for clothing and other personal expenses. Star candidates are lured into running with promises that any campaign debt will be magically paid off, or that personal expenses above and beyond what Elections Canada allows will be covered.Levant asked because he knew it was part of the way the game was played. Kudos to Flanagan for turning him down and forcing Levant to show some loyalty to a new party he admits was in turmoil. But to suggest that Flanagan couldn’t have tried to bribe Cadman because he didn’t agree to bribe Levant is a pretty long bow to draw. It also conveniently ignores the fact that Harper has acknowledged that the party did talk to Cadman about compensation, even though he denies it was a $1-million insurance policy.The Cadman story is slowly but surely working its way to the front line of discussions about which party will trigger the next federal election and why. Although it is hardly surprising the Conservatives tried to incent Cadman, the image of party bag men trying to entice a dying man into bringing down the Liberals is fast becoming a very heavy weight for Harper to carry around. Mr. Levant has done little to ease that burden with his article.All that having been said, I still find it pretty hard to believe that Levant believes what he’s saying. But I could be wrong.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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