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Harper scrambles to put out new fires over abortion, ethics

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OTTAWA — As Canadians prepared to gather for the holiest weekends in the Christian calendar, Canada’s election campaign is serving up an unsavoury stew of scandal and muck to go along with the traditional ham.

Most elements of a civil debate heading into Good Friday and Easter Sunday were taken to the trash as the opposition pounced on two fresh controversies to tar the Stephen Harper government Thursday.

The first involved an old charge against the Conservatives — that the party has a secret agenda to restrict abortion rights — after a Tory MP boasted to a pro-life group over the weekend.

Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost was recorded telling an anti-abortion group their petitions had succeeded in killing funding for the international wing of Planned Parenthood.

The second controversy hit close to home: the mysterious emergence of audio recordings, allegedly of Montreal construction bosses discussing plans to exert influence over a government appointment.

There had already been reports this week that the prime minister’s chief spokesman and close aide, Dimitri Soudas, was involved in meddling in an appointment to the Montreal Port Authority.

The issue got a fresh airing Thursday after a trio of recordings were posted on Youtube, purportedly of controversial Quebec construction magnate Tony Accurso and three different figures discussing the issue.

In one, another supposed construction boss is heard telling a man said to be Accurso that Soudas would be able to secure the appointment for their preferred candidate.

The voice calls Soudas "the real boss of Quebec," declaring that "so far he appears to be very capable of delivering the goods."

Soudas has admitted to expressing that Robert Abdallah was the government’s preferred choice for the job, but vehemently denied exerting pressure. Abdallah ultimately did not receive the appointment.

As for abortion rights, Harper gave the clearest answer to date on what he would do — and not do — if he were returned to office with a majority.

Not only would the government not propose legislation to limit choice, but he would ensure any attempt by one of his MPs to do so through the back-door of a private member’s bill would fail.

"As long as I’m prime minister, we are not reopening the abortion debate," Harper said.

"The government will not bring forward any legislation and any such legislation brought forward will be defeated as long as I’m prime minister. This is not the priority of the Canadian people."

Harper’s strong response was unusual in that the question of restricting abortion rights in Canada was never on the table.

Rather, the issue arose for the second time in the campaign after Trost was recorded speaking to a Saskatchewan anti-abortion group about Planned Parenthood.

In addition to blocking their funding, he said, "it had been an absolute disgrace that organization and several others like it have been receiving one penny of Canadian taxpayers dollars."

But Harper’s strong response suggests the high level of anxiety among Conservatives surrounding the issue.

Talk of a hidden social agenda was partly blamed for Harper losing his first run at government in 2004 after backbencher Cheryl Gallant compared abortion to the beheading of hostages in Iraq.

Since then, Harper has maintained strict discipline on candidates speaking out on abortion. The opposition leaders were quick to try capitalizing on the controversies.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc Quebecois chief Gilles Duceppe called for Soudas’ immediate dismissal, while the NDP’s Jack Layton called for an investigation.

"It seems to me that the evidence is becoming more and more clear that the Harper government and his close circle — like Mr. Soudas — have not respected the rules," Layton told reporters in Toronto.

Ignatieff derided the Conservatives’ denial of funding to Planned Parenthood International as "ideological spite" and said he would restore support when the Liberals are returned to power.

In a statement, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda issued a statement insisting Planned Parenthood would get funding if its application "falls within the government’s parameters."

It is unclear how the controversies will impact the Conservative campaign. Harper has been following a front-runner strategy of avoiding controversies and exposure to the media and public, even to the point of screening crowds at his campaign events to keep out potential non-supporters.

The tactic has appeared to work in preventing any major seepage of Tory support, but polls also suggest the party may be failing to make the necessary inroads needed to win a majority.

In contrast, Ignatieff and Layton have made a point of welcoming all comers to their rallies, and answering unscripted questions from the audience.

Both leaders were holding virtual town hall meetings Thursday — chatting with people and taking questions through the social-networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

Ignatieff returned to Montreal hoping to gain votes in Quebec, and stem the tide toward the NDP in the province. Meanwhile Layton, who polls show has the most momentum, campaigned in Toronto.

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