Stephen Harper: new ideas, old tactics

The PM wants to steal Ignatieff’s edge as the leader with an eye on the future, says Paul Wells

New Ideas, old tactics

Michael Ignatieff’s reputation for arrogance, tailored for him with care by his Conservative opponents, never survives three minutes in his actual company. The Liberal leader is genial and accommodating to a fault, if those can be faults, and there are days in his endless battle with Stephen Harper when they probably can.

Ignatieff welcomed a visitor to Stornoway shortly before Christmas with coffee, small talk and a chuckle at the first question: does he have any New Year’s resolutions? “Keep smiling,” he replied. “Work harder.”

He will have to do much of the latter in 2010, after 2009 strained his ability to do the former. He jettisoned much of his senior staff in October and many of his assumptions soon after. He has failed to close the polling gap he inherited from Stéphane Dion. Now he will try again to be relevant. His aim is to be the guy who thinks about the future while the Prime Minister thinks only about tactics.

“I think that Canadians went through a very turbulent year. We’re still living in the after-tremors of September 2008”—the market crash that led to the recession of 2009. “Canadians were told in the first quarter of 2009: ‘The world, as you know it, is coming to an end.’ ” And to some extent, it really did: “The recovery, in lots of parts of the country, wasn’t one at all. This wasn’t a recession, it’s a restructuring.”

The effects of that restructuring are, Ignatieff maintains, the challenges of the new decade. “The markets of growth are India and China and we’re not well prepared.” Harper inherited a healthy economy from Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, but has set about dismantling it. “This government walked away from the remains of Nortel,” Ignatieff said. “It’s selling AECL,” the state atomic-energy agency. He listed a range of challenges related to the demographics of an aging population, the stability of pension plans first among them. “We’re in a new world. And the political question is, who’s going to prepare Canada for that world?”

This is the line Ignatieff has worked out since his new chief of staff, the cherubic Chrétien-era fixer Peter Donolo, joined him on Oct. 27. Donolo replaced Ian Davey, who once helped persuade Ignatieff to leave Harvard for politics in Canada. Soon after, a selection of other senior staffers received pink slips or demotions. Donolo’s crew were on the job in Ottawa in the 1990s, an era when the Iggyites they replace were proclaiming their disdain for politics in a succession of Toronto watering holes or, in some cases, still in high school. “What they bring to the table,” the Liberal leader says of his new helpers, “is they’ve been there.”

What he brings to the table, they say privately, is much the same quality, if only Canadians can be made to see it. “Isn’t it great that we have a leader who knows a bit about the world?” one said. Ignatieff probably can’t be sold as a Chrétien-style “happy warrior,” this person admitted, but he might work as a “cool cucumber,” unmoved by the daily fray, able to see far and plan well.

“People say, ‘You’re being too abstract, you’re being too academic,’ ” Ignatieff said. “But I tell you, when I talk to Canadians, that is what they talk about. ‘Where are we going here? I’ve got a job today, but will I have a job tomorrow?’ ”

Harper, by contrast, “is a funny guy. It’s all tactics, all the time. He governs crab-like, this way, that way.” The Liberal “thinkers conference,” which Ignatieff had promised for the autumn, then for January and will now be held in Montreal in late March, is part of this process. “We need to be seen, and in reality to be, addressing these big issues.”

But all of these conversations took place before Christmas. Even then, both Ignatieff and his new cohorts understood they will not have the luxury of acting in a vacuum in 2010, any more than they did in 2009. Ignatieff spent last year doing a lot of things that seemed bold at the time and wound up biting him on the nose. He put the government “on probation” and gave Harper a licence to brag extravagantly about his “economic action plan.” He forced Harper to spend the summer negotiating changes to Employment Insurance and then faced a choice about what to do when the talks came to naught. He decided to force an election in September and found he couldn’t. He lost support anyway, merely for trying.

Already before Christmas, Ignatieff’s people could spy two ways Harper might wriggle out of their grasp. The first was that he would prorogue Parliament, throttling the current session in its crib a year after he prorogued the last time and starting anew at a moment of his convenience. “When he’s in the Commons, he goes down [in the polls],” a third senior Liberal said of Harper, “and when he’s out, he goes up. He’ll want to be out.” Ignatieff said prorogation, if it happened, would be “a scandal. A genuine, big-deal, capital-S scandal.”

The second danger was still more spectacular: that Harper would figure out a way in March to force the election he spent September avoiding. “It’s quite clear on their side that they’re setting up the budget to have something unacceptable to us,” said the Liberal who noticed Harper likes to maximize his time outside the House. “They’re going to engineer their own defeat.”

Donolo is said to be skeptical of this line of argument. He does not see what Harper could propose that would be unacceptable to the opposition but popular with voters. Surely spending cuts would be as unpopular in the real world as in Parliament. Still, Donolo is less prone than some Liberals to mistake his wishes for reality. The new chief of staff spent the period over New Year’s working hard on a “Plan B” that would have the Liberals at least somewhat prepared to fight a spring election.

There’s a lot to do. The Liberals could use a campaign manager. Don Guy played that role for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2003 and 2007 and was going to do the same if Ignatieff had pulled off that September election. But now Guy is staying close to home while his wife gets ready to deliver twins. The ageless Toronto consultant Gordon Ashworth will probably be on board. He held senior roles for Liberal leaders going as far back as Pierre Trudeau. Toronto consultant Warren Kinsella, whose relations with Donolo have sometimes been frosty, will nevertheless have a prominent role in the next Liberal campaign war room.

For their part, Conservatives close to Stephen Harper insist they have no interest in a spring election. Shifting from a year of extravagant spending to an era of (relative!) restraint will be a delicate operation. There will be a price to pay for getting too far ahead of public opinion, or for falling behind it. Harper learned, perhaps, the cost of excessive cleverness in the fall of 2008, when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced limitations on public funding to political parties and galvanized the opposition parties as never before. The spring will be challenging enough without the added excitement of an election.

But if the good news for Liberals is that Harper prefers to think long term, the bad news may be that he is about to make a great show of thinking long-term. In so doing, he will steal as much as he can of Ignatieff’s cool-cucumber competitive edge.

The prorogued Parliament is not Harper’s excuse to rest but to retool. A Throne Speech on March 4 and a budget the next day are only the visible part of the action. In private, cabinet ministers will receive amended mandate letters, telling them the issues they must concentrate on for the next year. Conservative chairs of Commons committees will be tasked with new subjects of study.

What will the ministers’ and committee chairs’ new mandates be about? Spending restraint and a return to (relative!) fiscal probity, for one thing, but not only that. What else? “Tomorrow’s economy,” a leading Conservative strategist said, and for a second it was almost possible to believe he didn’t know Ignatieff is peddling the same line. “The jobs of tomorrow.”

A Conservative government could follow such an agenda in any number of directions. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s last job in Ontario provincial politics was as “minister of enterprise, opportunity and innovation” in the doomed government of Ernie Eves. Industry Minister Tony Clement has been making more noise lately about building a competitive, entrepreneurial economy. And you’d have to have been blind to miss Harper’s own extended autumn trips to China and India, countries Ignatieff has so far managed only to talk about. The Liberals are beginning to establish a long history of assuming Harper will have nothing to say on a given issue, only to discover he finds things to say that hurt them badly.

So while Ignatieff and Harper seem to agree on a schedule (no election soon) and a terrain (shifting Canada from crisis management to long-term planning) nobody need fear they will agree on much else. Both men are intelligent, intellectually curious, and a hell of a lot more flexible in the positions they take than most members of their respective parties. Admirers of both have hoped they would lead their parties in a genuine debate about the big issues any serious country faces. In 2009 Ignatieff wasn’t able to lead that debate and Harper wasn’t interested. In 2010 the real clash of ideas might begin.

Does that mean our politics is heading into a period of genteel discussion about enduring matters of state? Oh hell, no. The stakes are too high, the ground too unstable, the central protagonists—Stephen Harper and the nationwide support network for wounded egos that is the Liberal Party of Canada—too mercurial. To say our politics is about to change is not to say it has the faintest chance of calming down.

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