Taking aim at Ignatieff

The first shot in the coming Tory war to define their opponent

Taking aim at IgnatieffIn the coded language of official Ottawa, they are known as SO31s. It’s a reference to Standing Order 31 of Parliament, which allows that 15 minutes be set aside before question period each day for MPs to stand in the House and make brief remarks about a subject of their choosing. For the most part, members use the time to salute constituents, celebrate charitable causes, mourn sad occasions or pontificate on matters of national or international importance.

When they still had Stéphane Dion to kick around, the Conservative government took great pleasure in mocking the former Liberal leader before he rose to ask another awkwardly worded question of the Prime Minister. And though they waited a few days before doing likewise with Dion’s successor, a steady succession of Conservative backbenchers has been sent up to denigrate Michael Ignatieff or his party since he took the leader’s chair. Indeed, despite an attempt recently by the Speaker to limit personal attacks during this time, government MPs have used more than 100 of these statements to needle the Liberal side in the 12 weeks since Parliament returned in January—a concerted campaign that reached a particular low when Ron Cannan rose on the afternoon of April 20 and attempted to segue from a preceding statement of condolence by Liberal Maurizio Bevilacqua about the deadly Italian earthquake.

“Mr. Speaker, I too add my condolences to the folks in Italy. Our prayers and thoughts go out to all those folks in Italy,” Cannan said. “But there is an earthquake happening in our own country. I would like to remind Canadians what the Liberal leader said on April 14, just last week, and I quote, ‘We will have to raise taxes.’ ” A day later, the Conservative MP stood in the House, apologized for his remarks and asked that “this incident not be exploited further as it would only serve to prolong the pain of those who have lost loved ones.”

By such standards, the launch last week of a new Conservative advertising campaign—unveiled at an off-the-record briefing conducted by two of the Prime Minister’s spokesmen, though both claimed to be on one-day leaves from their government duties—was relatively genteel. But via television and the Internet, the Conservatives intend to make the myriad questions about Ignatieff’s capabilities and history difficult to ignore. And so where those SO31s might be dismissed as mere parliamentary brinksmanship, Michael Ignatieff now faces a legitimate test of his and his party’s ability to control his image.

“The line is: he’s just visiting. That’s the tag line that the guys want to focus on,” says Tim Powers, a political strategist who has worked with the Conservatives in the past. “That his arrogance and his aloofness portray an interest in self and not in nation. And I think the contrast is, whether you like the Prime Minister or not, when you compare him to Iggy, you do at least know he’s interested in Canada, he’s spent his whole life working to improve public policy here and Ignatieff is about Ignatieff. I think that sort of self-interest and non-Canadian-like behaviour is something that needs to be gotten at a little bit, as a set-up for the legitimate, heavy contrast that will come if and when Iggy ever comes out with a policy.”

Stephen Harper’s side was, of course, wildly successful in defining Stéphane Dion. By the time last fall’s election was through, his middle name might as well have been “Not A Leader.” While Dion tried to claim the high road, his lack of a suitable response is now generally viewed as the beginning of his end. The Liberals insist this time around will go differently. That the economic situation will take precedence. That Ignatieff is not Dion (a point even the Conservatives concede). That Canadians already have an idea about who Ignatieff is and what he stands for. And that the party will take “whatever steps are necessary” in response.

Hours after reporters were briefed on the coming bombardment, Ignatieff made a first attempt at returning fire. “On a day when we have got record bankruptcies, we have got unemployment skyrocketing, all this government can think of doing is running attack ads on me,” he told reporters. “This is the old style of politics. We are in the middle of a serious economic crisis. This government needs to grow up and do its job properly.” A day later, he broadened his counterattack at a speech in Toronto, taking specific aim at the suggestion that his time outside Canada says something about his commitment to the country. “Like many Canadians, I’ve seen our country from the outside. As a writer, as a teacher, as a war reporter, I’ve seen Canada from afar. And when you see Canada from afar—when you see our unity and our purpose and our strength—you see a country that is proud of its diversity, that is strong and united in its diversity, that is an inspiration to the whole world,” he said. “Stephen Harper doesn’t understand that.”

Having spoken in lofty tones about unity when he officially accepted the Liberal leadership this month, Ignatieff has, for the moment, a convenient display of aggression with which to contrast himself. But then this is still a fight on Harper’s terms. “Certainly I’ve heard from certain friends that don’t like the ads. They think that they are a little unfriendly in a manner they don’t take comfort from because they sort of question his alleged Canadianness,” Powers says. “But when they tell me they’re upset, that means they’re actually thinking about it too. I think the ads force people to think a lot about who Michael Ignatieff is.” Jill Fairbrother, Ignatieff’s press secretary, concedes the ability of attack ads to commandeer the discussion: “The more time you spend talking about attack ads, the less time you spend talking about the government and what they are doing or not doing.”

And so the onus remains with the Liberals. Fairbrother says they’ll use the Internet to counter the Conservative campaign. Television ads may follow, though the Liberals vow they will refrain from personally attacking the Prime Minister. “I think for their own internal purposes they have to be seen as responding,” Powers says. “Part of the thing with these ads is they are partisan reinforcement vehicles. So if Ignatieff wants to signal to his party that he is not Dion and that he is standing firm and strong and wants to reinforce his own message, then they need to do something.”

Much will depend on Ignatieff himself. Whatever he has experienced in his life to date, he has perhaps never been so publicly challenged. The way he responds will ultimately be the focus. “Will he play to type?” Powers asks. “That’s the effectiveness of any communications campaign. You’re creating a narrative, and the success of the narrative is based on the behaviour and performance of its central character.”

An early preview of a formal campaign—though Ignatieff and Fairbrother disavow any official authorization or even knowledge of the originating source—might be found in a series of suspiciously professional-looking clips posted to YouTube by an anonymous entity calling itself GritGirl. With the exception of one clip that mocks the Prime Minister’s alleged visit to the bathroom at the G20 meeting last month, the ads mostly aim at Conservative management of the economy, often offsetting the public statements of Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with news of job losses and contradictory expert analysis. Conservatives claimed those clips as the reason for their new ads. But, in March, a mysterious auteur named ToryBoy had already proceeded to upload his own series of suspiciously professional-looking clips. One of those videos—a montage of great moments in Canadiana from the last 30 years, with a kicker that reminds viewers Ignatieff wasn’t here to see them—foreshadowed the initial thrust of the official Conservative campaign. Others go specifically to the question of economic leadership. The Conservatives, like the Liberals, claim ToryBoy’s work is neither connected to, nor sanctioned by, the party.

One Conservative, speaking on background, uses the phrase “tip of the iceberg” to place the first round of official ads in context. Ignatieff has left behind the longest of paper trails from which, it is said, any number of quotes can apparently be plucked for partisan purpose. Then, of course, there are the words he’s offered more recently.

The Conservatives have taken particular interest in a response Ignatieff offered, at a forum weeks ago, to a question about what might be done to get the country out of deficit. And in addition to those SO31s, the government has, of late, taken to periodically using some of the questions it is allotted in QP each day to stage short morality plays, where a backbencher is sent up to ask a fellow Conservative for the government’s opinion of Ignatieff’s various failings. “It has been 28 days since the Liberal leader said, ‘We will have to raise taxes,’ ” Conservative Greg Rickford reported to the House last week, referencing a quote Ignatieff insists was spoken hypothetically. “Could the government please tell Canadians if it believes the Liberal leader has a secret plan to raise taxes?” To respond, the government sent up Pierre Poilievre, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary. “Mr. Speaker, during his 34 years in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Liberal leader became a very distinguished wordsmith. I commend him for his words and I quote them: ‘We will have to raise taxes’ or ‘I’m not going to take a GST hike off the table’ or ‘I am a tax-and-spend, Pearsonian, Trudeau Liberal.’ His faculty with words permits him and his sense of honour compels him to explain which taxes he will raise, by how much and who will have to pay.”

Though at first visibly frustrated by such displays, Ignatieff has settled on laughing at the feigned indignation. At the risk of seeming arrogant, he may need such confidence. Because just as the latest ads are hardly the start of the campaign against him, they surely don’t represent the end.