02/21/2014 01:25 EST | Updated 04/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Andrew Leslie Says Jilted Tories Retaliating With Attacks

MONTREAL - Andrew Leslie says the Conservatives wooed him when he retired from the military and are now acting like jilted lovers because he chose to join the Liberals instead.

But the Tories say it was the other way around — Leslie approached them.

The retired general has been in the Harper government's crosshairs for the past week over the revelation that he billed taxpayers $72,000 to move house one final time after leaving the military.

Almost lost amid the continuing partisan back and forth Friday over Leslie's moving expenses was a glimpse at a possible plank in the Liberals' eventual election platform.

Leslie, who advises Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on military and foreign policy, said wounded veterans deserve lifetime pensions, not the one-time, lump-sum payments the Harper government currently doles out.

News of Leslie's moving expenses was leaked just days before the start of the Liberal national convention, where he is being showcased as one of Trudeau's star candidates for the 2015 election.

In a speech Friday to delegates, Leslie made it clear he believes the Conservative government was behind the leak and he suggested it was retaliation for him spurning the ruling party's political advances.

When he retired, Leslie said he "had conversations with several political parties on potential ways that I could best serve Canada."

He ultimately chose the Liberals because "I wanted a leader I could follow heart and soul."

"I don't know if any of you have noticed but one of the other political parties doesn't seem to be taking the news too well," he joked, casting the Tories as spurned lovers.

"I want to tell them, 'Look, it wasn't you, it was me.' But do you know what? After this last week, let's be honest, it was really them."

However, in a heated encounter later with reporters, Leslie repeatedly declined to say whether he'd been courted specifically by the Conservatives; he even took issue with the use of the word "courted."

Eventually, he allowed that there had been "a variety of discussions between myself and a variety of political parties, of which the Conservatives were one."

But the Conservative party issued an email in the middle of Leslie's news conference, insisting that Leslie was the one who initiated contact.

"His lack of judgment and defence of excessive taxpayer spending further underscores why he is Justin Trudeau's senior adviser," the Tory missive scoffed.

Pressed on who approached whom, Leslie said: "Quite frankly, over the course of the last couple of years, depending on what level, people approached me and, as you get higher up the food chain, you're talking to them and you're approaching them and it's a bit of a back and forth, much akin to a dance."

The Toronto Star later reported it has obtained emails that show Leslie was in contact for about two years after his retirement with two senior Conservative operatives about possible senior jobs in the RCMP or at the Museum of Civilization.

The emails show great interest in finding a role for Leslie was taken by Derek Vanstone, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deputy chief of staff, and Jenni Byrne, then executive director of the Conservative party who now serves as Harper's deputy chief of staff.

Leslie allowed that the continuing controversy over his expenses has turned his political debut into a "baptism by fire."

But he made no apologies in his speech for accepting what he described as a standard retirement benefit for veterans with more than 20 years of service, to pay for one final move. He noted that the Conservatives have had eight years to change the policy if they thought it was excessive.

"It's administered by the minister of national defence. It's his policy."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson has called Leslie's moving tab "grossly excessive," especially since he moved only a few blocks away from his old home in Ottawa.

Leslie choked up as he talked about veterans who return to Canada after dangerous combat missions, often suffering from physical and mental trauma.

"There is an implied covenant, a sacred duty that imposes a moral obligation on all of us as Canadians to ensure that we do not cast aside those men and women who stood the watch but can no longer stand alone," he said.

"Handing them a modest lump-sum payment does not and cannot replace a lifetime pension for those that need it and it is past time to fix this issue. This will cost a bit of money, but it's a price we have to pay."

While he offered faint praise for the Harper government's record on supporting the military prior to 2010, Leslie was scathing about its more recent botched record on military equipment purchases — which he called the worst procurement record in 50 years.

"There over a dozen major equipment programs that are abject failures, ranging from fighter jets to armoured vehicles to ships to helicopters and they can't even buy a modest fleet of trucks that are painted green."

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