Paul Wells on Ignatieff’s double dare

He’s promising to take down the Tories. Now the hard part: winning.

Ignatieff’s double dareIn the end, Michael Ignatieff had a decision to make. Do words and actions have consequences, or did he return to Canada to deliver empty threats every few months? Apparently it took him some time to pick an answer to that question, but by the time the Liberal caucus gathered in Sudbury this week, Ignatieff had chosen to give his behaviour a little consistency. In so doing he gave Canadian politics, at last, a little drama. And he seems to have put the country on a fast track to a fall election, barely a year after the last one.

“After four years of drift, four years of denial, four years of division and discord—Mr. Harper, your time is up,” Ignatieff told his caucus. “The Liberal party cannot support this government any further. We will hold it to account. We will oppose it in Parliament.”

This could wind up meaning any number of things. It could be a wet firecracker if the NDP or the Bloc Québécois take Ignatieff’s new assertiveness as their cue to reverse a solid trend of voting against the government at every chance. But if they don’t—if every opposition party votes against the government on a money bill or an explicit confidence motion—then sometime soon after the House of Commons reconvenes on Sept. 14, this miserable backbiting cliffhanging Parliament will come skidding to a halt and its various inhabitants will head back home to their ridings to ask us for another chance.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his trusty adjutant, John Baird, were quick to denounce any thought of an election as irresponsible. There’s an economic crisis on, they said, and no politician’s attention should be anywhere else.

The argument will be persuasive to some voters. It’s true that there was an election only last year, but that one followed nearly three years of more-or-less productive activity, whereas a fall election this year would come after a much shorter break from the hustings.

Ignatieff, however, must have calculated he had no choice. He has been delivering a succession of I-Really-Mean-It-Now ultimatums to Harper ever since he fell into the Liberal leadership from which the party had unceremoniously ejected Stéphane Dion in, approximately, January. The moment was fast approaching when his constant warnings to Harper would be revealed to mean either (a) nothing or (b) something.

First there was the On Probation thing, in which Ignatieff agreed to support Harper’s January budget in exchange for quarterly reports on the budget’s implementation. March’s report was, the Liberals said, unacceptable, but Ignatieff said it was June’s that would tell. In June he accepted the second report, in which the Conservatives claimed 80 per cent of the budgeted fiscal stimulus was now committed to specific projects, with ill grace. He announced he had four conditions to forgoing a summer election. He wanted to know precisely, to the dollar, how much money Harper had actually spent on stimulus. He wanted a detailed plan for getting Canada’s budget out of the deficit into which Harper had dug it at the opposition parties’ urging. He wanted a plan to replace the medical isotopes the benighted Chalk River reactor can no longer make. And he wanted Employment Insurance eligibility rules relaxed markedly.

Harper met with him, spotted a fellow with the look of an easy mark, and rejected three of the conditions out of hand. He agreed only to a bipartisan panel that would spend the summer working on EI reform.

The panel’s summertime meetings were, it’s an open secret, a risible ritual of barely sublimated mutual aggression. Ignatieff came to Sudbury with nothing to show for all his huffing and puffing, and Conservative MPs, watching from a distance, were increasingly confident that if this guy was calling the shots they would make it to Christmas without trouble. After that it was only weeks to the Whistler Olympics in February, and then it would be almost summer. Suddenly it would be near the end of 2010 and, you know, why stop there? Because that’s the thing, Conservatives said privately, about drawing a line in the sand: the line’s made of sand too.

At some point this must have become clear to Ignatieff. Perhaps he would have been better not to turn his short tenure as Liberal leader into a succession of ultimatums, but having delivered them he finally had to live up to them. His Sudbury speech amounted to the first draft of the Liberals’ campaign manifesto and, for the first time, a hint of a coherent rationale for replacing Harper as prime minister.

“We can choose a small Canada—a diminished, mean, and petty country,” Ignatieff said. “A Canada that lets down its citizens at home and fails them abroad. A Canada that’s absent on the world stage. That’s Stephen Harper’s Canada.

“Or we can choose a big Canada. A Canada that is generous and open. A Canada that inspires. That leads the world by example. That makes us all proud. 2017 will be our 150th birthday. We can be the smartest, healthiest, greenest, most open-minded country there is—but only if we choose to be.”

Of course, a late-breaking fit of backbone and a few lines of rhetoric won’t guarantee a Liberal triumph whenever the election does come. They will need a complete strategy and a fair bit of luck. Up to now Ignatieff’s advisers have preferred to view Harper’s election in 2006 as a fluke, and his re-election in 2008 as a bit of bad luck helped along by Stéphane Dion’s carbon-tax proposal and his inability to communicate well. When Canadians come to their senses, the thinking goes, they will come back to the Liberals. “I believe the overwhelming number of Canadians don’t like Mr. Harper,” Ian Davey, the Liberal leader’s new chief of staff, told the Toronto Star. This is certainly true of the overwhelming number of Canadians who hang out with Ian Davey, and demonstrably not true of the overwhelming number of Canadians in general.

In public opinion polls, Harper routinely does better than Ignatieff and the NDP’s Jack Layton when respondents are asked who would make the best PM. The government routinely does well when respondents are asked whether it is on the right track or the wrong track. Party preference polls bounced around a bit this summer, but basically the Liberals and Conservatives are tied. That’s between elections. Historically, going back almost half a century, the Conservatives underperform in polls between elections and then deliver a bit of a surprise at the ballot box. Which helps explain why Chrétien in 1997 and Paul Martin in 2004 were surprised to see their opponents take a serious bite out of their hide, and why the Harper Conservatives and the Dion Liberals were tied in August before Harper opened an 11-point gap on election day last year.

The election campaign will surely bring its share of unforeseeable surprises and, one suspects, an important change in strategy on Harper’s part. He has always depended on a divided opposition for victory, which after all is what Jean Chrétien needed, in mirror image, to rack up his three majorities. The NDP has done a little better at every election since Layton became the party’s leader in 2003, rising from 15 to 37 seats. This has been excellent news for Harper, and in the heady days after the 2006 election it was possible to find both New Democrats and Conservatives who talked about eliminating the Liberals in a new, polarized national politics. But Layton’s best performance, combined with the Dion-led Liberals’ all-time historic worst, wasn’t enough to give Harper a majority. And then the NDP and the Liberals combined to try to form a government weeks after last year’s election. To Harper, the NDP is not good enough at its best and dangerous at its worst. He has spent the year treating Layton with barely veiled contempt, rarely answering the NDP leader’s questions in the House and offering Layton no concessions during their private meeting late last month.

Instead Harper has sought to polarize the coming confrontation, portraying it repeatedly as a fight between his Conservatives and “the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition.” Never mind that Ignatieff has shown no interest in forming such a coalition; for Harper it will exist from the day those three parties bring his government down, and he will brandish its spectre every day on the campaign trail.

It’s a high-stakes gamble. After all, the only way Harper can be sure of averting an opposition coalition is to win a majority of seats. He may feel he has little to lose. First because a third straight minority would endanger his continued leadership of his party. Also because a Liberal-NDP coalition, if those parties have the numbers to form one, really would be a strong possibility after an election, whatever those parties’ leaders say before.

So Harper seems to be calculating that he has to double down. He will seek a polarized vote in which the choice is Conservative or Not-Conservative. His appointment of Gary Doer, the country’s most popular NDP premier, as Harper’s ambassador to Washington can be seen in this light, as an attempt to appeal to NDP voters. If NDP support collapses he needs more of that party’s support to come his way than it has so far.

There is no way to guess in detail how an election campaign will unfold, so soon after last year’s coalition crisis. It was a system shock that profoundly divided the country in ways that are not obvious from Toronto. All that’s clear is that Harper has taken the effects of that shock into account to the best of his abilities. Whether Ignatieff has done the same is one of many question marks over Ignatieff, the only national party leader who has never led his party into an election before.

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