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Ignatieff ’s Liberals looking cool, collected – and ready to win

June 2009

These days the federal Liberal party appears to be on a roll. They are in a dead heat with the Conservatives nationally and are well ahead of them in both Ontario and Quebec. The Conservatives could easily lose their 10 seats in this province, and without Quebec they have no hope of winning a majority in Ottawa.

Which brings us to their leader. Stephen Har per has been off his game for some time. Other than building up the deficit – now $50 billion and counting – Harper has little of import in the legislative hopper. His minority government has little to show for the first 100 days of the current parliamentary session. Unless you count the recognition of the capital’s Beechwood Cemetery as the National Cemetery of Canada.

Harper’s troubles began last fall when he ruthlessly tried to reduce public funds for his political opponents. When the three opposition parties tried to fight back by setting up a tripartite coalition that included the Bloc, Harper cut his own throat in Quebec by lashing out at the perfidious separatists. Tory numbers in the province dropped like a stone.

When Harper belatedly realized the coalition was a real threat to his hold on power, he scuttled off to Rideau Hall and convinced the Governor General to shut down parliament. It was a demeaning stratagem and the voters recognized it as such. Hence Harper’s drop in the polls. Hence the low grumbling in some Tory circles that Harper will never win a majority government and, indeed, will be lucky to win another minority one.

One name mentioned as Harper’s successor is that of justice minister Rob Nicholson. He is Harper’s most competent minister. The big rap on Nicholson is that he is from the West. After Manning, Day and Harper, some Tory strategists feel it is the turn of the East, which would make Elmer McKay a better fit. There is even some talk that Jean Charest, now in his third term as Quebec premier, might move back to Ottawa to lead the Conservatives. It is a long shot, but so was Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby. Whether Harper stays or goes, his decline in the polls has been mirrored by the rise of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. After he took over from Stéphane Dion, some Liberals worried that Ignatieff did not have a killer instinct, that he was unable to go for the political jugular. The Liberal leader put paid to that when he dispatched his old friend Bob Rae from the leadership contest.

Rae’s only hope was to have a national leadership contest. Ignatieff replied that the fight should be settled by the Liberal caucus. Ignatieff prevailed and Rae threw in the towel. A good thing, too. The last thing the Liberal party needed was another internecine struggle between two candidates. After all, for years the party was racked by the fight between the Chrétien and Martin factions.

So Ignatieff was crowned at the Vancouver convention last month and the party emerged under his leadership more united than it has been in years. In his powerful convention speech, Ignatieff took on Harper directly : “For three years you have played province against province, region against region, individual against individual. When your power was threatened last November you unleashed a national unity crisis, and saved yourself only by sending parliament home. Mr. Harper, you have failed us. If you can’t unite Canadians, if you can’t appeal to the best in us – we can. We Liberals can build a federalism based on cooperation, not confrontation.”

Since the convention, Ignatieff has not shied away from tough issues. He has said he might have to raise taxes. In light of the biggest deficit in our history, surely that is self-evident and reveals Ignatieff to be an honest politician. Ignatieff has also said bluntly that he will not make further “concessions” to Quebec. He says this province has all the power it needs, and he is not in favour of amending the constitution to give it more.

Instead, Ignatieff has invited Quebecers to join a national project, and in that regard he has mentioned construction of a high-speed rail link between Windsor and Quebec City.

The main Ignatieff policy plank coming out of the convention was employment insurance. In keeping with his unity pitch, he is suggesting a system of uniform national standards to replace the existing patchwork structure. And he is ready to make this an election issue.

Even so, I doubt very much that there will be an election before the fall. Neither the Bloc nor the NDP are ready, and the Liberals need to raise a lot more money before they can match what the Tories have in the bank.

Ignatieff is often described as “cool”. In that regard he resembles Pierre Trudeau, also a public intellectual. He has even been compared to Barack Obama, arguably the “coolest” politician on the planet.

Certainly there is no politician in Canada who is provoking more buzz than Ignatieff at the moment. You can tell the Tories are worried when they mount a series of expensive ads slamming Ignatieff because he spent so much time outside the country.

Actually, the Harper government is not really concerned about Ignatieff having been away. What really concerns the Tories is that Ignatieff is back and ready to take them on in the next election, which he has a better than even chance of winning.



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