Abandon (leader)ship: Iggy sinking Grits

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Sun Media, Friday, June 11, 2010

The basic test of an opposition party’s readiness to govern is competence and, being in opposition, the only thing voters have to measure is a party’s competence to manage its own affairs.

Rule 1: If you can’t run your own party, you can’t run the country.

The Liberals under Michael Ignatieff are failing this test at every level. Their message is incoherent. Their fundraising lags the Conservatives by a margin of three-to-one. Their organization, once known as the Big Red Machine, is invisible on the ground. Their discipline has unravelled, as evidenced by all the loose talk about a coalition or merger between the Liberals and the NDP. And their morale sucks.

The responsibility for this situation falls on Ignatieff, who in the year since being confirmed as leader has failed to tell Canadians who he is and where he would take the country. The absence of a personal narrative has been compounded by a series of embarrassing policy flip-flops on everything from immigration reform to Quebec’s health-care head tax.

A disturbing leadership pattern has emerged. First, Ignatieff announces he’s in favour of something, then a faction in caucus leans on him, and he comes out against the very thing he approved. He tried to embarrass the government on the question of funding for therapeutic abortions for maternal health in the developing world, but failed to carry his own motion when pro-life Liberal MPs stayed away from the vote. He threatens to whip his party on a vote to oppose the abolition of the long-gun registry, but rural MPs pay no attention.

And now the Liberal-NDP coalition-merger story, over which the media have been whipping themselves into a frenzy for two weeks. Try as they might, the Liberals can’t kill the story because their own guys are feeding it. And not just any guys, but big guys like Jean Chretien, a three-term former prime minister. And Alf Apps, the party president. And Samuel Lavoie, president of the young Liberals. And Warren Kinsella, the Liberal tactician, who has now sworn an affidavit that he had conversations with Apps last month about Liberal conditions for merging with the NDP.

Among other things, the Dippers would have to swear off socialism. It’s too late for that. And the Liberals have already handed Stephen Harper an incredible gift — the socialist coalition. He’s going to drive a stake through their heart with this line, especially in Ontario. Remember the pictures of the Three Stooges coalition at their ill-advised signing ceremony in 2008? Not only will the video show up in Conservative attack ads, the Tories will remind Ontario that when Bob Rae was premier, he had days named after him.

When the Liberals sent Iggy out to knock down the coalition story last weekend, he only made it worse when he said co-operation between parties “is not illegitimate.” It wasn’t until Wednesday that he finally got it right, calling the notion “ridiculous.” You’re not at Harvard any more, Michael, you’re in politics.

When Ignatieff brought in Peter Donolo to be his chief of staff last October, there was a major staff shakeup. But once you’ve changed the entourage and things still don’t improve, it becomes about the leader.

Iggy has the summer to get some traction. After that the message from voters may be: Mr. Ignatieff, your time is up.

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