Harper hopes Green Shift will turn Liberal voters Tory blue

MONCTON, NEW BRUNSWICK - Conservative Leader Stephen Harper reminded enthusiastic supporters here of his family's New Brunswick roots and cheered the region's "confidence" and "vibrant entrepreneurial economy" hours after Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, also campaigning near here, reminded Atlantic Canada voters that Harper once characterized the region as having "a culture of defeat."

"It is always very emotional when I come back to New Brunswick," Harper said at the end of a 25-minute stump speech to about 450 supporters in a local high school. Though Harper was born in Toronto, his father was born in New Brunswick and he can trace his family roots back to the 1700s in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

"This area, this economy - you may not see it living here every day - but this has come so far from the times when I was a boy. This place has developed a strong economy, (and) a vibrant entrepreneurial economy," Harper said. "There is confidence. There is energy."

In a speech in 2002, shortly after he became leader of the official Opposition, Harper said Atlantic Canada was trapped in "a culture of defeat", a result of federal government policies. Harper refused to apologize then even though the Legislature of Nova Scotia unanimously condemned the comment and former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord also criticized Harper for the remark.

Lord, now the co-chair of the Conservative campaign, delivered a fiery speech at the rally, in a riding held by Liberal MP Brian Murphy.

"It's not a coincidence that after the prime minister won the debates, that he has decided to come to New Brunswick two days in a row and only to visit Liberal ridings," Lord said. "At the same time, we have Stephane Dion fighting for his job as leader of the Opposition who was also visiting Liberal ridings. I think that tells you something very important."

Earlier in the day, speaking in Yarmouth, N.S., Harper said his party was optimistic about its electoral chances in the four eastern provinces.

"There's probably no part of the country where people are more sensitive about the costs of energy," Harper said. In most parts of Atlantic Canada, the primary source of energy for home heating is fuel, whereas it is electricity in Quebec and natural gas and electricity in the rest of the country. "When the opposition party's major plank is they're going to deal with economic uncertainty by imposing a carbon tax, I think that shakes up a lot of people, even a lot of people who have been pretty traditional Liberal voters."

While in the region, the Conservatives announced that if re-elected, they would increase the budgets of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Department of Western Economic Diversification, and the Economic Development Agency of Canada for Quebec Regions by $300 million over four years. Harper said he would also divert $10 million of that funding to rural and low-employment communities in southern Ontario.

"The regions of Canada are unique, unique in their needs, their potential and their aspirations," Harper said at a news conference in a maritime museum here. "Therefore we have made investments accordingly."

Earlier in his career, Harper and others in the Reform Party movement sometimes criticized regional development agencies - which spend nearly a $1 billion a year - because they appeared to be sources of funds politicians could dip into for projects that might win them political support.

The Conservatives themselves have made questionable investments with regional development money, say Liberals say.

A few days before the election, for example, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who is the minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, announced ACOA would provide $50,000 for a three-day curling tournament to be held next month in his riding in New Glasgow, N.S., where he is now facing Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Mackay said at the time, the funding is "a marketing effort (that) will also promote this area as a tourism destination and a good place to do business."

Harper fended off a second round of plagiarism accusations. This time, he is accused of lifting a few paragraphs from a speech of former Ontario premier Mike Harris. Harper said that while the plagiarism of a speech by former Australian prime minister John Howard was "not acceptable", he dismissed accusations of impropriety over the Harris speech.

"In this case we're talking about a couple of sentences of fairly standard political rhetoric," Harper said.


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