Thanks, Iggy

Stephen Harper should be grateful for how Ignatieff screwed up his election-call game of chicken

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The Gazette, Sunday, June 21, 2009

One good turn deserves another. Last December, Michael Ignatieff had Stephen Harper to thank for provoking the failed parliamentary coup that resulted in Stéphane Dion's ouster and Iggy's installation as Liberal leader.

Last week, it was Iggy's turn to return the favour when he huffed and puffed and threatened to blow the House in. In his bluster and empty threats to force an election, Ignatieff made a complete fool of himself, stopped a Liberal resurgence in its tracks, and put Harper back in the game.

In threatening to force an election he didn't want, Iggy relied on Harper to take him off the hook. Even as he threatened an election in one breath, he implored Harper for a meeting in the next, saying his office was only one floor up. It was about as dignified as a blind date.

And Harper, with uncharacteristic restraint, played his role in perfect prime ministerial pitch. Harper's strength, his propensity for tactics, is also his greatest weakness, in that he tends to overplay his hand as he did in the self-inflicted parliamentary crisis.

But last week, he was both subtle and subdued in his response to Iggy's request for a meeting he never asked for. Harper decided to play out the sequence off camera, giving the Liberal leader two meetings off the Hill, one at the PM's Langevin Block office and the other over drinks at 24 Sussex. By scheduling the first encounter during question period, Harper did Iggy a huge favour by taking it off the floor of the House.

As for the outcome, a blue- ribbon panel to examine EI eligibility and reform, reporting back in September, it's a quintessential Canadian compromise - make a problem go away by studying it.

As to the other three points in Iggy's election ultimatum - speeding up infrastructure spending, limiting the deficit and assuring a supply of isotopes for cancer patients - never mind. It's a deal. The House is out for the summer. Let the barbecue season begin. No more election brinksmanship until the fall.

Liberal spin doctors were out working a line that the blue-ribbon accord was a great triumph of Iggy's tactical genius and negotiating skills.

Rubbish. Last week was a complete disaster for Ignatieff, and the Liberals know it. The only thing that can be said about it is that he has the summer to learn from the harrowing experience he inflicted upon himself.

First of all, he traipsed over to his big news conference last Monday, accompanied by his wife, as if they were off to campaign launch. The visuals were very triumphalist and completely wrong.

Second, he read a very long and boring opening statement, as if he was back in a Harvard lecture hall, rather than a press theatre full of sharks waiting to tear him to pieces. It's politics, Michael, not poli-sci. Get to the point.

Third, he's got to stop making it all about him. There were more than 100 "I"s in the transcript of his news conference, and 30 in a five-minute interview with Peter Mansbridge, with half a dozen "me"s tossed off for good measure. His own advisers have told Iggy about this, but he keeps doing it. Enough already.

Fourth, if you're going to threaten an election in the morning, then you'd better show up on your own issue in question period the same afternoon. In avoiding his own issue, Iggy looked like Chicken Man.

The Conservatives have spent considerable money on a media buy portraying Iggy as a stranger in his own land. They've also done an Internet mockup of a Hello-style magazine cover called Me with Iggy on the cover. So then he went out and made their point for him. Enough about me, let's talk about me.

It's always a good thing to define your opponents, but sometimes they define themselves. And this was Harper's good fortune last week.

He didn't really do anything. He just showed up. But sometimes that's good enough. Brian Mulroney used to tell his staff: "Don't compare me to the Almighty, just the alternative."

And by comparison Harper looked very good last week - his best outing since the well- managed visit of Barack Obama in February. He ended the session on a high note which he can take into his summer tour. His demeanour was calm, his message conciliatory. Just what he needed, when he needed it most.

No more Mr. Mean. Get out the blue sweater again.

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