Michael Ignatieff's summer has been a dud

If a leader doesn't define himself, his opponents will do it for him

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The Gazette, Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why would the Liberals want to force an election on a country that doesn't want one? Because they can.

But here's a reason why they shouldn't: They're not ready. They're nowhere near ready. They might be united as a party, and they might be competitive again in fund-raising, but they don't pass the other tests of campaign readiness. They don't have a program or a strong ground game, they don't have a message, and their leader Michael Ignatieff doesn't have a narrative.

Worst of all, Ignatieff's summer tour, such as it is, has been a shambles. That should tell the Liberal high command all they need to know. If you can't do summer stock, you can't do Broadway.

There is a rule in politics: If a leader doesn't define himself, his opponents will do it for him. In Ignatieff's case, in the absence of a personal story line, the Conservatives thoughtfully provided one in their attack ads, that he was a stranger in his own country: "Michael Ignatieff - just visiting."

So how did the Liberals respond to that, at the end of the spring session? They allowed Iggy to go to London to give the Isaiah Berlin lecture, and have his picture taken in a tuxedo. A leader should never be photographed at a black-tie event until after he has won an election. Furthermore, there are no votes in London, England, though there are quite a few in London, Ont. (Next month Ignatieff is going to China. No votes there, either.)

Ignatieff also went to Calgary during the Stampede, although there don't seem to be many pictures of him in a cowboy hat. He has also been campaigning in safe Liberal ridings, such as Sydney in Cape Breton. A leader's summer tour is supposed to focus on competitive seats.

And every time Ignatieff turns up on the barbecue circuit, he's asked if he's going to bring down the government. His answer is that he's trying very hard to co-operate on issues like EI reform, but the Conservatives are making it difficult for him.

This question is going to follow him all the way to the Liberal opposition day scheduled for Sept. 29, Ignatieff's first opportunity to propose a motion of non-confidence. If he wants to frame one around lower thresholds for EI benefits, there's no doubt that the NDP and the Bloc will go along with him on it.

But if he thinks Canadians want an election, especially over EI reform, then he really has been out of the country for too long.

The Liberal leader might get some sense of the mood of the country when his troops gather next week in Sudbury, Ont., for their annual summer caucus. Liberal MPs were generally bullish about their election prospects last spring, but the summer should have given them pause.

First of all, they got no convention bounce out of Ignatieff's coronation as party leader in Vancouver, and his acceptance speech there was a missed opportunity to introduce himself to the country and say where he wanted to lead it.

He needs to do more of what he was doing Friday in Lennoxville, connecting with voters by stressing his family's links to Canada.

At the end of the spring session of the House came Ignatieff's June swoon. His election brinkmanship, and his subsequent climb-down, made a very bad moment for him. No one has ever confused vacillation with leadership. By contrast, Stephen Harper looked every inch a prime minister throughout the piece. Not only did the episode call Ignatieff's judgment into question, but it also signalled the end of his honeymoon with the media.

That the Liberals would have taken a hit in the polls since then was entirely predictable, especially as Iggy has done very little on his summer tour to regain momentum.

Here's something else for the Liberals to consider: With a new leader taking advantage of the worst economic downturn in decades, they should be running 10 to 15 points ahead in the polls, easily leading every region of the country except the West. Instead, they're running no better than even with the Conservatives, given polls' margin of error, with both parties in the mid-30-per-cents. There is no majority in sight for either one of them.

And now the worst of the recession appears to be over, with economic growth returning in this quarter, and employment growth expected to resume in the near future. The Conservatives can say they are steering the country on a steady course, bringing us safely through the storm. Everywhere Harper goes on his summer tour, he announces the rollout of another infrastructure project.

Announcing stuff is what prime ministers do in the summer. It's the built-in comparative advantage of incumbency, and Harper is making the most of it.

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