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Ignatieff 'quality guy,' Flanagan says

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Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political studies professor, doesn't necessarily think the same way about Michael Ignatieff and the legitimacy of coalition governments as Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's closest confidant and former campaign manager.

"I actually have a lot of admiration for Ignatieff," Flanagan said in an interview Friday. He was in Winnipeg to lecture on political ethics and campaign strategy at the University of Manitoba.

"Michael Ignatieff to me is a world-famous scholar. I'd like to be a world-famous scholar. I'm not, so Ignatieff to me is a role model... I think he is a quality guy and I think Canada's lucky to have him as Liberal leader. I have the same views about Stephen Harper and I think we're lucky to have all of our leaders."

Yet Flanagan defends his party's perpetual ad campaign characterizing the Liberal leader as "just in it for himself" and "just visiting" Canada. Asked if he personally agrees with his party's characterization of Ignatieff, he replied: "I don't necessarily think that." But he insisted it was up to Ignatieff to repudiate the "just visiting" claim. And he doesn't know why the Liberals "don't make their own plausible case" against the prime minister. "It wouldn't be hard to write the ads."

Recently, Flanagan received a lot of media criticism for saying that political attack ads don't have to be true, they just have to be plausible.

During last winter's constitutional crisis, Flanagan wrote in The Globe and Mail that "Gross violations of democratic principles would be involved in handing government to the coalition without getting approval from voters." A week earlier, Harper, too, claimed the opposition could not take power without an election.

Flanagan now appears to have shifted his position and backed away from Harper's. "I wouldn't rule out parties coming together to form a coalition and whatever Mr. Harper may have said in the heat of the moment I don't think should be interpreted as constitutional theory because he was in a fight for his life." However, he insists any coalition relying on the Bloc Quebecois must have prior electoral approval.

The author of Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, managed the Conservative 2004 and 2006 election campaigns. But he insisted he "wasn't a part" of a coalition proposal made by then Official Opposition leader Harper, NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in September 2004 that would have included the Bloc as a full partner.

Harper and the other two party leaders drafted a letter to the Governor General pointing out they had a majority and stating "this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options" before dissolving parliament.

"I don't know exactly what happened," Flanagan said.

Flanagan admits he doesn't know whether Canadians want to watch negative political attack ads 365 days of the year. "I don't know whether it's a good idea or a bad idea. It's just the way things are flowing." He predicted Canada is now into what he calls the "permanent campaign." And if Canadians don't like it, they should put pressure on their parliamentarians to cancel all government support to political parties.

"As long as parties have access to all this extra money and as long as you have spending caps that prevent them from spending during the campaign, I think they will start spending it between writs."

He points out that the Conservatives can spend $20 million in an election campaign while only having to raise $10 million.

He also hinted that should the Conservatives win a majority government, they would repeal the ban on third party political advertising.

"There is no chance of it happening in a minority parliament... Parties in Canada so far have not made extensive use of outside parties... It will happen if well-meaning reformers manage to cap expenses outside the writ period."

Flanagan refused to agree with research showing that negative political ads are helping to push down voter turnout. Voter turnout has plunged from 72 per cent in the 1993 election to just 58 per cent in the 2008 contest. Research done by Angus Reid Strategies showed Conservative attack ads during the 2008 campaign persuaded 11 per cent of Canadians not to vote at all and had the hoped-for effect of depressing non-Conservatives from voting while inspiring the party faithful to go to the polls.

"I'm not aware of any demonstrated link between pre-writ advertising and declining voter turnout... I think you'd have to say that the Conservatives' pre-writ advertising campaigns have been highly successful," Flanagan said. "So I think as long as they continue to work, they will do it and the other parties will imitate the tactics to the extent they have the money to do it."

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2009 A14

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