Ignatieff is still stumbling in role as opposition leader

The Liberal chief has been lucky but he's making mistakes

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Michael Ignatieff got lucky three times late last year, once when he didn't get the election he called for, a second time when Peter Donolo agreed to run his office, and a third time when Stephen Harper prorogued the House.

Ignatieff would have got killed in an election the country didn't want, and for which he had no message. Now he says he has learned his lesson. Donolo, who comes from a strong communications background, is doing a good job of bringing order out of chaos in the opposition leader's office, and is developing a message. And where the month before the scheduled resumption of the House would have seen the spotlight on Ignatieff, with the question being whether he'd improved his game, the Liberals successfully made it all about Harper, and the return of Mr. Mean.

Normally a government goes up five points in the polls when the House is out because it's governing, and can make a flood of announcements, while the opposition has trouble getting air time. This time the Conservatives took a five-hit, blowing a double-digit lead for no reason whatsoever. It serves them right.

It was one thing when prorogation was about saving the country from the unwanted Three Stooges Coalition, and quite another when there was no story line to back it up. The worst of it, from Harper's perspective, is that he could have brought the House back on schedule, skipped out for Haitian Conference in Montreal on his way to the Davos conference, and prorogued after a week or two for the Olympics. No one would have said boo, and Ignatieff would have been under a lot of pressure to show improvement.

To the question of whether Team Iggy is executing better, the answer is obviously yes. At least these guys can now put six players on the ice. But to the question of whether Ignatieff has raised his game, the answer is no, not yet. It's not just a question of rhetorical flourishes, it's a matter of political judgment and strategic positioning, which are very different from tactics.

For his big policy announcement, Ignatieff said a Liberal government would bring in a national daycare program, and wouldn't worry about the impact on the deficit.

Daycare is Ignatieff's big new idea? He has got to be kidding. He didn't say how much it would cost, and clearly has no idea. There are two problems with this, money and the constitution, to say nothing of the Liberals lack of credentials on an issue going back to 1988, when they allowed the Mulroney government's $6.4 billion daycare plan to die on the order paper in the Senate. That's quite a bit of money even today.

In the 1988 election and every one since, the Liberals have run on daycare promises, and with the exception of Paul Martin after the 2004 election, done nothing about them.

Oh, and there's this thing called the division of powers, between the feds and the provinces. Child care is early child education, and education is a provincial jurisdiction. This is why Paul Martin ended up signing cheques to the provinces, and looked like a head waiter rather than a prime minister. Ignatieff can use the word "national" all he wants, but it doesn't change a comma in the constitution.

Quebec, with 20 per cent of the kids in the country, provides half the daycare space through a $7-a-day program that actually costs $49. Jean Charest would be happy to receive a cheque from Ignatieff.

And then Ignatieff went and dragged in a dead cat called abortion. On Harper's G7 initiative to improve the health of mothers and infants around the globe, Ignatieff said his support was contingent on the availability of abortion and birth control in the developing world.

Iggy said he was "laying down a marker" on an issue that isn't even on the radar of public policy. Of course, if it reminded Canadians of a Conservative hidden agenda on abortion, the Liberals would benefit from it.

This is what happens when tactics drives policy. You get whacked, as Harper did on prorogation, and as Ignatieff has been for raising an issue that has been settled policy since he was living in another country. Ugh!

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