Iggy talks tough, but there's no way he's ready for an election

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The Gazette, Monday, December 20, 2010

In a series of year-end interviews, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff signalled he would pull the trigger on an election because of irreconcilable differences with the Conservatives over the budget.

A budget he hasn't seen yet. "We are ready for an election," he boldly declared, "and we think Canadians are ready for an election."


A week before Christmas, an election would be the last thing on Canadians' shopping lists. But Iggy insists that he sensed a groundswell for an election during his summer bus tour. The reason: Canadians don't like Stephen Harper. "Get rid of him," he says they told him.

As for the Liberals, they are so not ready for an election it's not funny.

On the same day Iggy gave his year-enders, the CBC put out an EKOS poll that showed the Liberals trailing the Conservatives by nearly 10 points, 35 to 26 per cent. (The CBC later put out a revised six-point spread, 32 to 26 per cent). Whatever, there are no elections to be won when a party goes into a campaign with 26 per cent -one voter in four.

The Liberals have very little money for an election -they have trouble raising $4 million a year, while the Tories raise $4 million a quarter, from a much larger donor base.

The Liberal leader is a drag on the ticket, with his approval ratings trailing the party's voting intention by at least 2-1 in the polls. Only the renowned Liberal brand is keeping the party competitive. As for the legendary Big Red Machine: It's a myth.

And the Liberal message is very much a work in progress, but consists almost entirely of product differentiation from the Tories.

This is why Iggy was sabre rattling again over corporate tax cuts that will see rates reduced to 15 per cent by 2012, the lowest in the G7 and a magnet for new investment and job creation.

"It is imprudent in the extreme to borrow $6 billion to give large, already powerful corporations, when you're already running a $56 billion deficit," he told the Globe and Mail.

But the corporate tax cuts were already in the 2007 budget, which the Liberals supported. The inferential logic of Iggy's threat is that unless Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's rescinds them in his budget in February or March, the Liberals will vote against the budget.

Ignatieff also said he couldn't vote for a budget that funded $16 billion for the purchase and servicing of the next generation F-35 fighter jets for the Canadian Forces. He will have tough time explaining that to workers in the Canadian aerospace industry, which employs 70,000 people, about half of them in Quebec.

This is a page from the 1993 Liberal playbook, when Jean Chretien promised to cancel a $4.8-billion purchase of 50 EH-101 helicopters. Seventeen years later we are still waiting for replacements.

So what Iggy's against is money for planes and prisons. What he's for is home care, daycare, and funding for university students. "If you get the grades, you get to go," he says. Never mind that a lot of this stuff is in provincial jurisdiction, and that Ignatieff would end up signing cheques to the provinces, and would look like what Pierre Trudeau once famously called "a head waiter to the provinces."

But he is differentiating the Liberal product from the Conservative one. And he is putting the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats on notice that he will move a non-confidence motion on the budget, and that they can't count on the Liberals to prop up the government any more.

But it also signals to Harper, in the event he wants to avoid an election, that he only needs either the Dippers or Bloc as a budget dance partner. After the New Democrats' disastrous showing in the November by-elections, they shouldn't be in a hurry to go anywhere. If Flaherty were to put some measures in the budget for seniors and the working poor, that might be enough for the NDP. Or if Flaherty were to accede to Quebec's request for $2.2 billion for a harmonized sales tax, something the Bloc has also been demanding, that would be enough to buy off the Bloc.

Ignatieff better hope so.

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