Ignatieff’s shrinking ambition

WELLS: The Liberals find a hope of beating Harper. But will it work?


Ignatieff's shrinking ambition
Chris Wattie/Reuters


“Have you seen our home care package? It’s being unveiled as we speak,” a Liberal party guy told me outside a Starbucks in downtown Ottawa. He showed me his BlackBerry, which was displaying something official-looking. “Focus groups are jumping up and down over this.”

That wasn’t hard to believe. That morning in Gatineau, Michael Ignatieff had announced a $1-billion program to help people care for aging relatives at home. More and more of us have aging relatives, so the Liberal plan addresses a real concern. The Liberal plan would use Employment Insurance to give caregivers half a year off work with modest pay. That’s the way parental leave benefits already work. Another element in the program would pay a tax benefit of up to $1,350 a year to people providing home care. That’s how the Canada Child Tax Benefit works.

So: a program designed to address a perceptible need in an aging society. Proven delivery mechanisms. Modest cost. (No, really: on $280 billion in program spending, $1 billion is modest. It cost a lot more than that to hold a summit meeting in Toronto this summer.)

In short, on this file at least, the Ignatieff Liberals are proposing to act much the same as the Harper Conservatives did when they brought in per-child cheques to parents, instead of state-organized daycare. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s easy to imagine the Conservatives returning the compliment. What will you do, I asked my Liberal acquaintance, if the Conservatives swipe your policy?
“There’s no ‘if’ about it,” he said with a shrug. Ignatieff hopes simply to grab some first-mover advantage, to be the guy who suggested doing something about home care first.

I suspect this centrist move, which brings the Liberals into the field of view of middle-class families, is smart politics. It seems like decent policy. But it also shows how time and hardship have shrunk the horizons of Liberal ambition.

The home care project is not the entire Liberal election platform. There will be more proposals in other areas when the campaign comes. Still, by way of comparison: in April 2009, Ignatieff seemed ready to force an election over his demand that eligibility rules for Employment Insurance be relaxed. The cost of that would have been maybe $7 billion a year. Last week, he voted against a Bloc Québécois private member’s bill that proposed the same sort of changes.

Six months before that, Ignatieff was a Liberal candidate for Parliament, running with his colleagues under the banner of Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift. You’re forgiven if you forget the details. Dion wanted to put $15.4 billion in carbon-tax revenues toward tax cuts and social programs.

So in two years, the price tag on Liberal plans has shrunk from $15 billion to $7 billion to—well, $1 billion for now, a few billion later.

This imploding ambition reflects fiscal realities. When the Liberals’ policy conference in Montreal ended in March, Ignatieff gave a detailed speech outlining policies he’d pay for by “postponing” $5 billion to $7 billion in Conservative cuts to corporate taxes. Those tax cuts will go ahead in the next federal budget, just after the New Year. So Ignatieff won’t have the money he was counting on to pay for his springtime plans.

Ignatieff’s concession to straitened circumstance may improve his chances of winning the next election. It probably makes it harder to call him reckless. But the trend line is worth noticing. It reflects the Liberals’ painful realization that Harper won the elections in 2006 and 2008, and that he will keep winning if they don’t change their game. So they are changing to make it more like his game. The Liberals have twice pitted big dreams against managerial Harperism and lost. Now they will play a game of nuance.

As the game board shrinks, there is less room on it for issues some people used to care about. Take climate change. Lots of Canadian still believe human action can reduce the damage from global warming. Canada is far less likely to lead such change than it was two years ago. Here Harper’s good fortune stems from a simple decision: to hitch his climate-change wagon to Barack Obama.

When he was elected, Obama had great plans on climate change as on everything else. Weeks after his inauguration, he told Congress, “We need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution.”
Obama’s plan was closer to Harper’s various cap and trade schemes than to Dion’s straight carbon tax. But if it could not pass Congress, it amounted to a plan to do nothing. In announcing a “continental approach” to energy and the environment, Harper was betting Obama would fail to get anything done. Canadians have paid too little attention to the collapse this summer of climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate. It meant Harper has won his bet. Everywhere Harper looks, he sees ambitious government going out of style.
One presumes he likes the view.