Off probation

Paul Wells predicts Michael Ignatieff’s next move

Off probationWow, does Michael Ignatieff ever talk a lot when he has nothing to say. There he is on the TV as I type, taking his tenth or 15th question in a scrum in Montreal, jousting with reporters, a strained smile on his face because they keep asking him the same thing and how many different ways can he say he hasn’t made a decision yet? Not a lot of different ways, it turns out, and yet he won’t back away from the microphone. So he’s having to say them again and again. And it’s making him testy. But he won’t stop. So he repeats himself. And then the reporters do. And still he won’t walk away.

There. He finally stopped. He’s gonna read the thing tonight and make a decision. Except all week I’ve been hearing from Liberals about their vacation plans. Those plans don’t involve door-knocking and debate prep. So if this whole election thing is still a live option, somebody forgot to tell the party.

Let us strain past the limits of this town’s attention span to recall a few simple things. The reason Stephen Harper was in Cambridge today was to update the country on the status of budget implementation. Excellent idea! Whose was it? Michael Ignatieff’s. The Prime Minister didn’t mention that, and yet it was really not long ago — the end of January — that Ignatieff cooked up this whole “probation” scheme. He’d vote for the budget, but he didn’t have to like it. In return the feds would have to report in March and June and December. There’s even a website. So you know it was a serious deal.

Now here’s the thing about probation. It is a daily state of binary possibility: Pass-fail. If I’m the opposition leader and I have Put The Government On Probation, then every day I do not announce the government’s failure is an endorsement. Tomorrow Michael Ignatieff will find a microphone somewhere and announce, at extravagant length, that he is endorsing the government again. The NDP and Bloc will announce they were ready to vote yet again to bring this government down, but yet again the Liberals have chickened out. It’ll all work out precisely as Ignatieff designed it to.

I now believe the opposition parties will not get their act together to vote the government down until after it delivers its next full budget. Of course that’s the worst possible time from the opposition’s point of view, because a budget is a chance to spend $200 billion: it’s the moment of maximum strength for any government.

But there’s always a reason not to make a decision. Was it 10 days ago the opposition parties, led by the Liberals, were demanding the finance minister be fired because he’d dug a $50 billion deficit? Stephen Harper ignored them. They did nothing in response. Paper tigers. Now they will wait until the recovery is in full swing and force an election on a good-news budget. That’s how Michael Ignatieff messes with you until he’s done.

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