Ignatieff has to tell us who he is and where he's going

Liberal leader can't keep threatening to defeat government, and then retreat

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Among his predecessors as Liberal leader, the one with whom Michael Ignatieff most easily identifies is Lester B. Pearson.

Like Pearson, his father's friend and colleague, Ignatieff is trying to rebuild a government party in opposition. Like Pearson, Ignatieff spent many years building his name outside the country, for which he hasn't received the thanks of a grateful nation. Like Pearson, he would be taking office in his mid-60s - Pearson was 65 when he became prime minister, Iggy will be 63 next spring.

But unlike Pearson, who formed a minority government on his third try in 1963, Ignatieff will have only one chance. Nobody gets three campaign strikes anymore. Getting it right, starting with defeating the Conservative minority government at the right moment, will determine either his destiny or his fate. Winners make their own destinies, whereas fate befalls losers.

How's Ignatieff doing so far? Again, like Pearson, Iggy is learning his trade as he goes, with some important mistakes along the way. Pearson was a diplomat who discovered the hard way, sitting across from John Diefenbaker, that politics is a blood sport. Ignatieff is a public intellectual who impressively staged a palace coup in seizing the Liberal leadership, but is learning that he needs to take his game to a higher level if he hopes to replace Stephen Harper, a master of the tactical game.

"Mike Pearson did a lot of important work in this house," Ignatieff told a lunch guest at Stornoway, the opposition leader's residence, last spring.

Since then, Ignatieff has stumbled on several important occasions, while soldiering on with the kind of quiet work that marked Pearson's time in opposition. Uniting the party and filling its coffers are prerequisites to building a successful national campaign.

No doubt about it, the Liberals are a united party, eager for an election whenever the leader pulls the trigger. The party coffers are filling up - the Liberals matched the Conservatives in fundraising in the last quarter, from a base of only half as many donors. Party membership has more than doubled in the last year, and these are the foot soldiers of a campaign. This is all to Iggy's credit, the unglamourous but essential work of the opposition leader.

But so far Ignatieff has also failed to tell his story, of who he is and where he would take the country. His acceptance speech in Vancouver, a convention transformed to a coronation, was a missed opportunity for Ignatieff to introduce himself to Canadians. His speeches tend to be well-written, but ponderous and pedantic in delivery. He is not lighting any fires.

Then he fell into a trap set by the Conservative attack ads that he is "just visiting," a stranger in his own land. He travelled to London early in the summer break, to give a lecture in honour of his mentor, the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. There were no votes in that, and foreign travel shouldn't be part of a leader's summer tour.

Come to that, Ignatieff hasn't had a summer tour of the barbecue circuit, other than the obligatory stop at the Calgary Stampede. Iggy sightings have been uncommon occurrences across Canada.

And then there's the Hamlet-like role of whether or not to defeat the government on EI reform in the fall, or bide his time until next year.

Nobody wants an election in the fall, least of all over EI, an issue nobody really understands, though there is no doubt the Liberals can rally the NDP and Bloc to lowering qualifications for benefits.

Ignatieff should have learned from the June debacle in the House, when Harper rescued him from his own election threats, that he can't keep playing the election game of maybe and maybe not.

Ignatieff looked irresolute and irresponsible then, and did again last week when he gave a TV interview saying he wanted to work with the government on EI but they were making it hard.

Then Ignatieff could also get caught in a trap of his own making - his quarterly review on the economy as a condition of supporting the last budget.

He can't keep doing this. He looks like, well, Stéphane Dion.

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