Ignatieff defaults to the right


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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is alienating the centre-left and proving incapable of poaching on the right -- the two key pillars of Liberal victories.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/07/2010 (4594 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is alienating the centre-left and proving incapable of poaching on the right — the two key pillars of Liberal victories.

On June 24, Britain’s The Guardian published a perceptive article by correspondent Heather McRobie on the Liberal leader headlined, Is This Michael Ignatieff’s Last Stand?

Ignatieff’s failure to connect with his constituency emerged early on, she writes. "There was an undeniable aura of arrogance in his announcement that he’d returned to Canada after almost 30 years abroad because ‘his party needed him.’"

Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press archives Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

The Liberals’ attempt to compare him to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau "was always misplaced," she continues. "Unlike Ignatieff, Trudeau’s popularity wasn’t imported from his stature abroad, and even his detractors on issues like bilingualism recognized his effective leadership skills. What is likely hurting Ignatieff now is that he isn’t losing to a worthy opponent, or even to a sweeping change of popular sentiment. He’s just losing."

He’s losing because his default instinct is always right-wing.

He showcases himself as the inheritor not just of the Liberalism of Trudeau, but of Lester B. Pearson, the prime minister who created Canada’s social safety net with nation-building programs such as medicare, the Canada Assistance Plan and the Canada Pension Plan. And he has even floated his own nation-building ideas: an east-west power grid; a national oil pipeline to service Quebec and the Maritimes; national child care and early learning; free university education for everyone with the marks.

But they are never fleshed out past the headline and often vanish completely. And when he is confronted with real challenges or opportunities to support or advance bedrock Liberal principles and policies, Ignatieff invariably drops the ball. When Quebec’s 2010 budget announced plans to impose a universal health tax and floated the idea of user fees, Ignatieff not only wasn’t critical, he wrongly claimed both conformed to the Canada Health Act.

Just recently, he gave federal Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty a clear field to score in another Liberal end zone, the Canada Pension Plan. While Ignatieff mused about a voluntary supplement to the CPP, Flaherty held cross-Canada meetings on CPP reform and emerged from a provincial finance ministers’ conference with all provinces except Alberta and Quebec agreeing to his favoured solution to the emerging pension crisis.

Sounding more like a Liberal than any in the party itself, Flaherty said: "I heard strong support for the Canada Pension Plan and the central role that it plays in our government-supported retirement income system… We agreed to consider a modest phased-in and fully funded enhancement to defined benefits under the Canada Pension Plan."

Ekos Research Associates executive director Paul Adams believes the Liberals have "overlearned" the disastrous lesson of their 2008 Green Shift carbon tax imbroglio. Fearful of policy, they became tactical, he writes in the May issue of Policy Options Magazine. They decided their best route back to power was not to offer Canadians any alternate vision to the Conservatives, but wait for them to defeat themselves. That left Canadians with no critique of the government nor any idea of what a Liberal administration might do.

"This led to the most negative impulse Canadians have about the Liberal party; that it’s only objective is power," Adams continues. He then described the default-right-wing Ignatieff on display at this spring’s Montreal Thinkers’ Conference:

"’I don’t recall one instance this weekend when someone said, here’s the problem, the solution is a big expensive government program. Didn’t hear it. Didn’t hear it,’" Adams reports Ignatieff said. "He obviously hadn’t been listening," Adams writes. "Moreover, even those social policy objectives Ignatieff did enumerate turned out to be subject to a higher priority: eliminating the deficit. By making the deficit his overriding priority, he made jobs, education, health care, day care, pensions, and so on, secondary: a wish list for another day."

And there was more. Ignatieff insisted no new spending would occur unless funds were specifically identified, ensuring the deficit would not rise, Adams says. The Liberal leader also told delegates: "We are not a big government party; we are the party of the network." Adams believes this means the Liberals will just convene federal-provincial conferences and hope the provinces can work things out.

Ignatieff’s leadership has "demagnetized" the Liberal party, Adams warns. It no longer can rally the anti-Harper vote. "Most Canadians who give up on the Tories go right past the Liberals to the NDP, the Bloc (Québécois) or, in particular, to the Greens," he concludes.


Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

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