Time for Ignatieff to take a chance

If the Liberal leader wants to show some backbone and differentiate himself from Harper, he should start by addressing the deficit issue

Time for Ignatieff to take a chanceIt is true in politics, no less than in physics, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Michael Ignatieff, as is well known, has seen his popularity nosedive in recent weeks, when it seemed he could not put a foot right. Very well: if he is smart, he can turn that to his advantage, using the very speed of his decline to propel his rebound. Reculer pour mieux sauter and all that.

There is a script for this. If listening to his advisers, playing it safe, taking no stands, guarding every word has brought him to this humiliating low, then the way is open for one of those Hollywood moments, where the candidate rips up the speech that has been prepared for him and speaks from the heart—when he sheds the ingratiating poses of “politics as usual” in favour of his authentic self. Of course, it helps if that is, in fact, what the candidate is up to.

It is tempting to believe that the public does not want this—that we would sooner our politicians lie to us, dope us with half truths, preferring the comforting haze of denial to the harsh light of reality. But in fact the voters show every sign of craving the opposite, if only it were offered to them. Whenever and wherever they catch the slightest whiff of authenticity in a candidate, they practically rush the barriers, at least until the inevitable disappointment, either because the candidate proves not so authentic as it appeared, or because authenticity, all too often, comes bundled with incompetence.

Ask AndrewSo, assuming the Liberal leader has any interest in this strategy, he will have both to break the mould of politics-as-usual in fact, and to persuade the public of this reality. He will have to stake out a bold position on an issue of importance other politicians would prefer to avoid, in a way that inspires confidence that he will stick to it under fire.

There is an issue that presents itself, as others have noted, as an opportunity for Ignatieff to show some backbone, and that is the deficit. Certainly it’s an important issue: the greatest proximate threat to our standard of living, particularly in light of the approaching “geezer boom,” with the explosion of social costs, notably for health care, it will bring. And it is one on which current political discourse remains frozen in denial. We are sliding back into the habits of mind that produced the long string of deficits of the 1980s and 1990s, where budgets always balance in the future but never today, and any unpleasant gaps are made to disappear with endless, endless growth.

To now, Ignatieff’s stance has been that of the government’s: no sacrifice is required, neither spending cuts nor tax increases. “Wait and see” was the precise formulation—not exactly words to inspire a public thirsting for leadership. As long as Ignatieff parrots the Conservative line, he can hardly expect to rally voters to his side. If it is a test of who can evade the issue with greater finesse, Stephen Harper has already shown himself the better man. To win the day, Ignatieff has to change the terms by which the contest is to be judged. He has to make the issue who is more willing to tell the truth about our public finances.

Well, that, and who is more likely to deal with it in an intelligent fashion. Among those urging Ignatieff to make the case for a cold shower on the deficit, there is an unfortunate tendency to express this in terms of raising taxes, notably the GST. Not only is this bad politics—there’s brave, and then there’s suicidal—but it’s also bad policy. Which, if your strategic goal is a politics based on talking sense about policy, makes it even worse politics.

We should not make the mistake of equating political honesty with a willingness to raise taxes. To be sure, it may prove necessary to raise taxes, as a last resort, and if so the GST is the best tax to raise. But to start from that premise is to ignore the lush acres of spending waiting to be cut, from a budget that has expanded 38 per cent in just four years. The public can sense this well enough, which is why a promise to raise taxes is likely to be viewed, not as courageous clear-headedness, but as the same old tax-and-spend.

It’s true that spending cannot be cut sufficiently to balance the books in the short term, still less to accommodate all those exorbitant old folks, if spending cuts are restricted to those old standbys, “waste, fraud and duplication.” (Though it’s a start . . . ) Rather, it will require us to make clear choices about which sorts of things government—the federal government in particular—ought to be involved in, and which it should not, ideally following Coyne’s Law: government should only do what only government can do. That is, we should reserve scarce public funds for those goods and services that cannot be provided at least as well by other means. Which surely is only common sense, though it seems scarce enough.

If, as advertised, Ignatieff wishes to engage the public in an “adult conversation” about our fiscal challenges, he might start there. Certainly he has nothing to lose, and if things keep on as they are, neither will we.

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