Harper tickles while Ignatieff burns

While Liberal leader does damage control, PM sounds a different chord

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The reversal of their political fortunes could not have been more dramatically contrasted by the events Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff participated in last weekend.

While Harper tickled the ivories at the National Arts Centre, with a little help from his friends like Yo Yo Ma, Ignatieff was in Quebec City in desperate damage-control mode over a unity crisis resulting from his own inept leadership of the Liberal Party.

Only six months ago, Ignatieff was very much a prime minister-in-waiting, and Harper was in disfavour across the land, nowhere more so than in Quebec.

But it turns out that while Harper seemed to be in the process of defeating himself, Ignatieff has utterly failed to define himself. What Ignatieff had going for him was mostly that he wasn't Harper. And that wasn't, and isn't, enough.

Since the spring, Ignatieff has done hardly anything right, while Harper hasn't really put a foot wrong. And it isn't just that he isn't Ignatieff. Since the spring, he seems to have grown into the role, as well as the job, of prime minister.

That's to his credit, as well as to a PM's office that appears to have learned from a series of tactical blunders and is now doing a much better job of running the government from the centre. And then there's Ignatieff's office, the not-ready-for-prime-time players.

Poll numbers from Strategic Counsel in yesterday's Globe and Mail illustrate the depths to which Iggy's standing with the voters has tumbled in the last six months, while Harper's fortunes have revived.

As he was confirmed Liberal leader in May, Ignatieff and the Liberals led Harper and the Tories by five points, 35 to 30 per cent. In the field last weekend, Strategic Counsel had the Conservatives moving out to a 13-point lead, 41 to 28 per cent. That's more than open water between the two boats, that is a couple of boat lengths. (And Strategic Counsel is simply wrong on Quebec, with the Bloc at 40 per cent, the Libs at 33 per cent and the Conservatives at 15 per cent. The authoritative CROP poll last week had the Bloc at 33 per cent, the Liberals at 26 per cent, and the Conservatives becoming competitive again at 21 per cent. And that was before Denis Coderre blew up the fašade of Liberal unity, quitting as Quebec lieutenant and blaming it all on the Toronto guys around Ignatieff).

It's no accident that Ignatieff's poll ratings peaked at the Liberal convention, which turned out to be a major missed opportunity on his part - an opportunity to introduce himself to the country, define his vision of it, and tell the voters where he wanted to take it. This was followed by his June swoon, when he made a fool of himself in threatening an election he didn't want, and practically pleaded with Harper to take him off the hook. He then missed an opportunity to regain his footing over the summer by taking most of it off. And in September he crossed a bridge of no return when he said, "Mr. Harper, your time is up," taking the country down a path to an election it didn't want, and for which he alone would be blamed. In the event, Ignatieff has only succeeded in turning the balance of power over to Jack Layton.

Finally, Ignatieff allowed a minor turf battle between Coderre and Martin Cauchon to escalate into a rift that exposes fatal fault lines in the Liberal Party - tearing at the alliance between Ontario and Quebec, as well as English and French-speaking Canadians, that is the very foundation of party unity.

And Ignatieff didn't get by with a little help from his friends. He could have done without Bob Rae, who knows better, undermining his leadership by saying "room must be found for Cauchon." As a Toronto MP, that's none of Rae's business. When he's the leader, he can make that call. Then Coderre deliberately torched Ignatieff's office Sept. 28, blaming the nomination mess on guys from Toronto who couldn't find Quebec with a roadmap. The headline in the Globe and Mail was devastating: "Running Quebec, from Toronto." For good measure, the newspaper threw in pictures of the Toronto Five--the five people closest to Ignatieff in his entourage. It looked like an ad for America's Most Wanted.

Meanwhile, Harper and his office have clearly learned from their mistakes. The Prime Minister's Office, which in April put it out that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of the party, eagerly joined in the 25th-anniversary celebration of his Conservative government's election in September. The prime minister who was dismissive of "rich galas" by the arts last fall strode onto the stage on the NAC last weekend, looking very relaxed in a black, open-neck shirt. Turns out that not only can he play, he can sing. Who knew?

Instead of laughing when he sat down at the piano, they cheered.

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