Ignatieff calls in 'Saint Peter' to bail out the Liberals

Veteran adviser should help the party get back on track

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Saturday, November 14, 2009

The smartest thing Michael Ignatieff has done in the last six months was to put out a statement on the morrow of last Monday's by-elections, in which the Liberals took a pounding, finishing third in all four of them.

"The by-election results last night show that we have a lot of work ahead of us," Ignatieff's statement read. "Canadians want an alternative to the Harper Conservatives. Our job in the months ahead is to earn the confidence and support of Canadians."

This does not go unnoticed in the Liberal Party, which needed to hear that from Ignatieff. A little humility goes a long way in politics. Or as Ignatieff himself said in the tagline of his TV ads in the Hundred Acre Wood: "We can do better."

One detects the deft touch of Peter Donolo, Iggy's new chief of staff, who begins his new job this week, but has been engaged behind the scenes since he was hired three weeks ago.

Donolo is a communications professional - one of the best. There's a very short list of great communications directors to prime ministers: Dick O'Hagan under Pierre Trudeau, Bill Fox under Brian Mulroney and Donolo under Jean Chrétien. It was Donolo who famously put Chrétien into a jean shirt, and kept him relentlessly on message.

Running "comms" is one thing, running an opposition's office on a war footing might prove to be quite another. The first thing Donolo might want to do is manage expectations around his own arrival, which has been greeted with widespread relief in the party, and inflated expectations by the media. "Saint Peter," as the Globe and Mail dubbed him. Come on. Donolo would be the first to laugh out loud.

The second thing he might want to do is hang out a new sign at the OLO: "Under adult supervision."

That's really what's been most missing in Ignatieff's office, which has been run by frat-house rules by a bunch of Type As from Toronto. Their inexperience has been surpassed only by their ineptitude. With quite a bit of help from Ignatieff himself, they have driven the leader's poll numbers into the basement.

It might prove to Donolo's benefit, and ultimately Ignatieff's, that Liberal fortunes bottomed out last week. Certainly there is no putting a good spin on finishing third everywhere, in English and French, east and west, urban and rural Canada. To his credit, Ignatieff acknowledged as much in his statement.

Ignatieff's problems began when he got no bounce from the Liberal convention, which was transformed into a coronation. Instead of using the opportunity to introduce himself to the country, Ignatieff was content with a partisan acceptance address in which he failed to enunciate a vision of the country and where he wanted to take it. He even forgot to speak about his children.

Then after his June swoon, when he threatened an election in one breath and practically implored Harper to take him off the hook in the next, the first thing his staff should have done was send him out on tour for the summer. Instead, in response to Tory attack ads that Ignatieff was "just visiting," they allowed him to go to London to give the Isaiah Berlin lecture in a tux.

As for his summer tour, it was more like a stately progress, with Ignatieff sightings few and far between across the country, and with absolutely no rationale behind it. What was he doing in Sydney, N.S., one of the safest Liberal ridings in the land?

Finally, there was his "Mr. Harper, your time is up," moment at the Liberal caucus, a speech in which he flayed the PM for not visiting China, and cancelled his own much vaunted visit the very next day. This proved to be only one of many scheduling screw-ups. Ignatieff accepted, and then cancelled, an appearance at the Carr Center at Harvard, of which he was formerly director.

Since the misbegotten moment of Ignatieff threatening an election the country manifestly didn't want, the Liberal poll numbers have collapsed to the mid-20s, just where Stéphane Dion left the Liberals - in a ditch. The worst of the self-inflicted wounds was an entirely avoidable turf battle between Denis Coderre and Martin Cauchon that Ignatieff allowed to degenerate into an English-French and Ontario-Quebec thing, the very two pillars of successive Liberal dynasties, from Laurier's time to the present.

And finally, in the House of Commons, the Liberals have been unable to get any positive traction in the fall session. They've run a series of diversionary tactics - attacking everything from infrastructure spending to the rollout of H1N1, never once neglecting to overplay their hand. The vaccine rollout might not be problem-free, but it is hardly "a national disgrace."

As a comedy of errors, the low point might have come with Donolo's own appointment, at first denied by Iggy's office, only to be confirmed later that night by the leader himself. Welcome to the gang that couldn't shoot straight. For an opposition that would be a government, competence is the basic test. So far Ignatieff has failed on all counts. But he's a very smart guy, who should be able to learn from his mistakes. Heaven knows, things can only get better from here.

 
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