Liberals' Ignatieff has nothing to lose on his summer tour

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Those inclined to dismiss Michael Ignatieff's summer bus tour as a stunt born of desperation would do well to remember Stephen Harper's summer tour of 2005, which was anything but an excellent adventure.

It began with Harper as a subject of widespread ridicule when he wore a black cowboy outfit, reminiscent of the bad guys in a spaghetti western, to the Calgary Stampede. It also did not pass unnoticed in his adopted hometown that he had his hat on backward. All hat, no cattle, indeed.

Things hardly got better as he made his way east, but Harper persevered. As Laureen Harper put it at the time: "This is our last chance."

Harper was then 10 points down in the polls, just as the Liberals are to the Conservatives now. Ignatieff's chief of staff, Peter Donolo, recently showed the Liberal caucus a hot chart reminding them of this. He also put up the famous photo of Harper in the cowboy costume.

Six months later, Harper was prime minister. What happened that summer was important to his development as a leader in the winter campaign of 2005-2006. He was able to develop both message and pitch on what Brian Mulroney used to call "the boonies' tour," away from the glare of the national media.

This is such an opportunity for Ignatieff and, make no mistake, it is also his last chance to connect with the voters before an election that could come as early as October, but is more likely next spring if the minority government falls on its next budget.

There's no doubt that Iggy's "Liberal Express" carries an element of risk. But, no risk, no reward. The Liberals haven't done a very good job of managing expectations for the tour, which in that sense could become the object of drive-by shootings in the media. But in terms of expectations for Ignatieff, they could hardly be lower anyway. His personal approval ratings lag well behind support for the Liberal brand. The leader is clearly a drag on the ticket.

It's highly unusual for a Liberal leader to suffer from a gender gap. But it's no mystery, either -women won't vote for a man who doesn't talk about his children. Ignatieff recently attended the graduation of his daughter, Sophie, from university in Scotland, and that should have been the only story of his trip. Instead, the headline was out of his meeting with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whether they discussed Britain's new coalition government, and its possible application to Canada. Just when Ignatieff had fended off the merger story, his side trip to London allowed it to pop up again.

So the summer tour is another opportunity for Ignatieff to improve his game as a retail politician. There's much more to this than kissing babies and flipping burgers on the barbecue circuit. It's about his personal narrative -who he is; and about his message -how he sees the country and where he wants to take it.

Canadians don't know the answers to these questions because Ignatieff hasn't addressed them. As for defining his opponent, Ignatieff struck an infelicitous metaphor on the first stop of his tour in Calgary when he said of Harper: "You can smell the whiff of sulphur coming off the guy." If this is to compare Harper to the devil, then at least he's the devil Canadians know.

In terms of policy coherence, Ignatieff has spent most of the last year contradicting himself on issues such as Quebec's health-care head tax to refugee-determination reform. Some of his pronouncements are absurdly illogical. For example, he has often called the oilsands a national treasure, a position that plays well in Alberta. But then he turns around and announces a Liberal ban on deepwater tankers to transport the oil across the Pacific after a pipeline is built to the northern coast of British Columbia. Huh? No oil spills off our coast!

Ignatieff's tour is focused more on rural Canada than the big cities. Then he'd better be prepared to defend his position supporting the long-gun registry. The fate of many small-town and rural Liberal MPs might depend on it.

But the relative downside risk to this summer tour is well worth the potential upside for Ignatieff. Put another way, he has little to lose, and a lot to gain.

It's a rite of passage for anyone who hopes to lead this country. Either Ignatieff is up to the test or he's not. But while he's at it, he should just go out there and have fun.

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