Ignatieff finds his fight

Paul Wells on the Liberal leader's surprisingly good start to the election campaign

Fighting back

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

“You know, Mr. Harper doesn’t like elections,” Michael Ignatieff told a room full of Liberals in Mississauga, Ont. For the Prime Minister, he said, elections seem to be just “a kind of pesky interference in the normal course of things.” The crowd of 500 packed into the Payal Banquet Hall obligingly made disapproving noises.

“I’ll tell you why he doesn’t like elections very much,” the Liberal leader went on. “Because it’s the moment when the power returns to the people of Canada. We love elections, don’t we?” The crowd started to applaud. “We want an election!”

It was the first weeknight of the election campaign, barely 80 hours after Stephen Harper’s government fell to a non-confidence vote in the Commons. A few hours before Ignatieff spoke, Harper had promised an income-splitting plan that would allow one spouse to transfer income to another so the two could pay a lower total tax bill. “Fine and dandy,” Ignatieff allowed as he described the plan to the crowd.

“Now here’s the problem, though. He’s not gonna deliver it to the Canadian family until he’s balanced the budget. He’s not going to deliver it for five years. He’s not going to deliver it until rainwater turns to beer. He’s not going to deliver it ’til pigs fly.” The crowd was roaring with laughter now.

“What he’s actually saying to the Canadian family is, ‘Take a number and get to the back of the line!’ What he’s saying is, ‘First I’ve got to give a whole lot of giveaways to oil companies, insurance companies and banks. They’re on the top of my list. So get to the back of the line!

“‘And then I’ve got to build $13 billion worth of prisons. Instead of educating your children, I gotta lock ’em up, okay?’ And then, if that isn’t enough, he’s gonna spend $30 billion on an untendered, uncompetitive bid for fighter jets. That is $1,000 for every man, woman and child in this country. And that is why he can’t do anything for Canadian families at all. Because you—and we—are at the back of the line. And the Liberal party is saying, ‘Let’s get this family to the front of the line! The front of the line!'” And the crowd went wild.

Of course this crowd would. A dozen candidates from the Toronto suburbs were on stage with the leader. They had brought their most faithful supporters. “Liberal leader excites Liberal room” isn’t news. But there is news on this Liberal campaign, and it has been spreading outward in concentric circles from moments like this.

First there is the leader’s manner. Ignatieff was speaking without notes or a teleprompter. He has performed off the cuff, and very well, at every stop on this campaign. It makes him look and sound more relaxed than Harper, who is good with a teleprompter but apparently can’t do without one.

Then there is the setting. The Liberal campaign leadership—campaign managers Gordon Ashworth and Pat Sorbara, chief of staff Peter Donolo—have made a study of Stéphane Dion’s 2008 campaign and made conscious choices to do things differently this time.

Dion spent much of his campaign in Liberal-held ridings, trying to hold onto them. He had not built a party organization capable of filling a room when he showed up. So he spent the beginning of the 2008 campaign sending a very strong message that Liberals were in trouble on their own turf. Ignatieff will have to play defence too before long, but his first moves have been into NDP, Bloc and Conservative ridings. Liberal advance teams have been told to compete to see who can turn out the biggest crowd. The 500 in Mississauga was actually smaller than other audiences he’s faced so far. So where his predecessor looked weak on defence, Ignatieff has projected strength on offence.

But the leader and the crowd won’t matter if the Liberals can’t craft a message that might appeal to voters who’ve spent nearly a decade staying home or voting Conservative. Here, too, Ignatieff has done some hard thinking.

His first concrete policy plank was a $1-billion-a-year program to pay $4,000 toward tuition for students planning to go to college or university. Low-income recipients would get $6,000. All of it would be tax-sheltered. No cumbersome new program would need to be set up: the delivery mechanism, Registered Education Savings Plans, already exists.

The Liberals were planning to deliver a new policy proposal every day for the rest of the week, with a full platform rollout on the weekend. “Here’s the key thing about it,” Ignatieff said about the platform at a Toronto news conference. “This electoral program of the Liberal Party of Canada will cost less—it will cost less than the Conservative program. And we will not raise taxes on ordinary Canadian families. And you know why? Because we’ve said no to corporate tax giveaways.”

In plain English, that means the Liberals plan to raise corporate income taxes the Conservatives already cut, from 18 per cent to 16.5, at the beginning of the year. Economists doubt the move will have much effect on revenues, so there is probably a measure of voodoo in Ignatieff’s revenue projections. Fortunately, the Conservatives are oddly eager to give him some cover: they have an interest in exaggerating the cost of the tax increase, just as he has an interest in exaggerating the new revenues it would provide. It probably won’t provide a fraction of the $6 billion he claims, but the Conservatives, for their own reasons, are using that figure too.

What was most striking to an observer who’s often remarked on Ignatieff’s formidable capacity for wishy-washiness was his willingness, at least sometimes, to take a stand. He has made the Harper government’s purchase of F-35 fighter planes a centrepiece of his campaign. But he doesn’t deny Canada will need new jets someday soon. Why fuss over the bidding process then?

“The key thing here is, I’m thinking like someone who might be—if the people honour me with their trust—the prime minister of Canada,” he told the Toronto news conference. “And if I get myself locked into this deal that Stephen Harper wants to foist on the Canadian people, I might be in the awful position of having to stand up in the House of Commons and saying ‘Folks, I’m really sorry here. But the plane that we promised you, or that the Harper government promised you at $50 million a pop, has just jumped up to $150 million a pop.’ That’s not a place I want to be. That’s not a place I will be.”

Besides, he said, in 2014 the federal-provincial deal on health care financing will come up for renegotiation. “I’ve got to be able to assure that that’s my priority. And that means I’ve absolutely got to deliver the right plane at the right price. We can’t fool around here. There’s only so much money to go around.”

It is still, always, a bumpy ride with this guy. Three minutes after he told reporters he wanted to protect health care dollars against overpriced jets, one of us asked him what he would do for big cities. Ignatieff lit off again in his most self-destructive mode: eager to please. Liberals “get cities,” he insisted. “As we move forward, the key thing here is to get regional rapid transit. To help cities right across the country move people in a more environmentally sustainable way. That’ll be, I think, the chief priority of a Liberal government when we come in.”

So Ignatieff’s chief priority will be health care. And transit. Maybe he can come up with something involving hospital trains. Ahead of him lay 31 more days of things he could potentially identify as priorities. A minefield for any inveterate people pleaser.

The other danger is simpler: that the campaign was already over before Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. Canadians have had two years getting used to Ignatieff and many more years to decide how they feel about every other party leader. The first polls of the campaign—a half-dozen showing the Conservatives a dozen points ahead of the Liberals, or more—suggest a lot of voters have long since found him wanting.

Five weeks of gritty stump speeches before well-stocked houses may help keep him from digging the Liberals any deeper. To dig them out of their hole and back into office he’ll need more luck than the electoral gods are used to bestowing.

He cannot have imagined any of this would be as hard as it’s been. But his opponents cannot have imagined that, with his back to the wall, he would finally learn to fight.

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