The road back

Andrew Coyne on Michael Ignatieff’s next move


As he tries to find a way back to contention, there are two roads open to Michael Ignatieff. Here’s the first:

Michael Ignatieff isn’t a Tim Horton’s kind of guy – and that suits his new chief of staff just fine.

Peter Donolo has spent his first week on the job reminding Liberals that party icon Pierre Trudeau wasn’t exactly a donut shop everyman either and that didn’t stop Canadians from electing him four times as prime minister.

… According to party insiders with whom he’s spoken, Donolo’s assessment of the party’s sagging fortunes is as follows:

Ignatieff and his inner circle have allowed themselves to be spooked by the Tory attack ads. Consequently, they’ve “hidden his light under a bushel,” playing down Ignatieff’s lofty academic and intellectual credentials.

Donolo believes his task is “not so much to package (Ignatieff) as to unpackage him,” allow him to be himself and to build on his strength as a thoughtful, insightful deep thinker – the very qualities that initially excited Liberals and evoked comparisons to Trudeau.

His aim is to position Ignatieff as a leader who’s better able to grapple with the weighty issues and thorny challenges ahead, as opposed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is so devoted to the appearance of the common man that he chose to attend the opening of a new Tim Horton’s shop rather than a speech to the United Nations general assembly on the environment…

Authentic. Classy. Taking Canadian politics to a higher level. The politics of the long game, of the “adult conversation.” The high road.

Now here’s the other road:

There is one potential game-changing issue out there that is becoming of increasing concern to a growing number of Canadians — the harmonized sales tax that will introduced in British Columbia and Ontario next July…

It appears that Mr. Ignatieff may have just awoken to the potential of the federal Liberals forming an unholy alliance with the Ontario Conservatives, in opposition to their provincial cousins and the federal Tories. He will have noted that the NDP’s robust showing federally and provincially has coincided with the party’s vocal denunciation of the HST.

Liberal caucus members were set to debate the new tax last night but it certainly appears as if the party is back-tracking from the favourable reception it has given the HST in the past…

HST provides the kind of tantalizing opportunity to latch onto an easy-to-understand, populist issue that people oppose in their gut…

If Mr. Ignatieff did come out against the HST, it would certainly be portrayed as yet another flip-flop, since he is on record as saying he supports tax harmonization.

Still, if his slide in the polls continues, he may need to throw away his shiny sword and start bludgeoning Canadians with a blunt sales pitch on something they care about, namely their pocket-books.

The low road, in other words. The politics of cheap populism. Phoney, dishonest, and as transparent as a piece of saran wrap. If the Liberal leader goes back on hs previous support for the HST, he will not only set himself up for a messy fight with the McGuinty Liberals — he will destroy what lingering reputation he has as a straight shooter. He will convince no one — the public will rightly suspect that, whatever he says now, he would not withdraw federal enabling legislation once in power. It will be seen for what it is: a desperation play. It’s dumb policy, and dumber politics, for a candidate who wants to be known as “an insightful deep thinker … able to grapple with the weighty issues.”

Two roads. Which one will he choose?


The road back

  1. "Which one will he choose?"

    Depends if Iggy wants to win an election in the next decade or not. Canadians just rejected an egghead with politcal/cabinet experience, why would we vote for an egghead without politcal/cabinet experience. I think populism trumps elitism most of the time, I would take low road if I was in charge.

    Would it be possible to take low road eruditely?

    'lingering reputation he has as a straight shooter' – I think it was used up long ago. Maybe not to general public but any one paying attention knows Iggy's been a weather vane.

    • Donolo was basically saying that you can be an elitist and appeal to populism as well. Just as long as appear to be able to command issues and not just run your mouth off about them.

      • The only problem is that Iffy has been defined whether by the Conservatives or his massive flip flops on just about any subject he cared to speak about. Coupled with his personality traits of being an elitist and pompuse twit Canadians don't care for what he has to say.

        The other issue is and Coyne rightly points it out. For Iffy to flip flop on the HST issue when he knows its in the best interest of the country is dangerous. If he does he will have two Liberal political machines in Ontrario and B.C. working against the federal Liberal party in the next election.

  2. I don't know, what would Harper do?

    • Harper would and will change the subject to something 'he' wants to talk about.
      That's why he keeps the media at a distance, so he can control the message.

    • Harper already did it – he is harmonizing sales taxes.

  3. As Harper and co. have shown us, taking the high road is quite overrated.

    • The Cons are terrific students, 13 years taught by the masters.

      • Agreed. The Libs smeared Manning and Reform as vile, extremist, unCanadian yahoos from the sticks who did not have the intellectual wiring to lead this country. It was complete nonsense, a revolting display that offended one's sensibilities. But the smear worked marvellously well as many people, especially eastern Canadians, bought it. Iggy can think lofty thoughts and ooze erudition. But sometimes leaders, as so ably demonstrated by Mr Chretien, need to use a baseball bat.

  4. There's no contradiction – Ignatieff has never claimed to be a deep thinker on economic issues, neither did Trudeau. And Trudeau certainly won at least one election promising to scrap an unpopular tax move, and then broke that promise in office. Of course, Trudeau spent decades in Canadian politics before becoming Liberal leader, which seems to be beyond Ignatieff now…

  5. How does it help Iggy to come out in favor of the HST? He'll not pick up Tory voters and he'll lose his own to the NDP.

    Politics is not a graduate seminar, Coyne. It's warfare. Low road is good. Low road works. Just ask Chretien, Harper, or even Gordon Brown in Britain who seems to have miraculously resurrected himself.

  6. "Two roads. Which one will he choose?"

    First one. Then the other. Then probably back to the first one before deciding that maybe the second road is the correct path. Or maybe it's the first one?

    • Yeah that's pretty much been his problem…inconstancy…a habit he absolutely has to give up. I wonder how self aware of this he is?

    • HST if necessary, but not necessarily an HST…presto, it's a winner

  7. Choose ? Can't have populism. Apparently that comes associated with the word "cheap".

    Although it usually is deemed to be too expensive.

  8. I think he should remain mum on the HST issue. It's a done deal. It's all over except the crying (or the shrug of indifference when the world doesn't end). Campaigning against it means campaigning against the Ontario Liberals which would be Dumb, seeing as that is the most powerful Lib organization in the country, and in a battleground where Iggy needs to make progress.

    • Agreed. If he really thinks it's a good idea he needs to fudge it.

    • Man – Iggy is once again in a tight situation.
      HST is not going to be popular – While it is provincial Libs bringing it about, no doubt many will take it out on the Fed Libs.
      On the other, as mentioned, the flip flop is dangerous in terms of character assassination, which Harper will jump on.
      Nevermind the turmoil unleashed between the provincial and federal arms of the party!

      While he need not go against HST, he needs to distance himself from it somehow.
      I wonder what Donolo has in mind…..

      • If Iffy flip flops on the HST,
        Harper will do nothing and say nothing, just watch the NDP devour him.

  9. dare i say if everyone could afford to hvae something else to drinka dn eat they may- and i willbe the first person to say i dislike tim hortons- except for the chocolate covered donouts and the occasional box of tim bits andmaybe the new french onion soup – and in an airport the sandwhich chili deal -which is cheaper then anything else int eh airport,and people i notice do like to sit inthe mornings when they are retired and talk with thier friends,but man i hate the floors in tim hortons- so i try to avoid them-reallly-so i ask- is loving or hating tim hortons that bad a thing -= i don't think so- espically if we were all rich and could afford smoked salmon on a bagel and an expresso if you go for that sort of thing-please people- the tim hortons guy wouldnt even sail his ship into halifax harbour after purchasing it for 60 million as he would have to pay tax in canada and instead parked it outside the harbour – one month after rasing the price of coffee 10cents do to "hurricane huan!-what the hell does have to do with canadian politics other than voters go there-they go to a an w too- is that where gilles duceppe eats?If you want to spculate on a person from what he eats why not consider what most canaidans eat compared to the expense dinners of the civl service and the mp's-now that is the real issue-not to mention 25000 kids dieing a day from stravation in our wolrd- -im beginning to belive russians when they say canada?what?

  10. How has dumb populism, thin and transparent as saran wrap, worked out for that Harper fellow?

  11. If I were a hard-core Liberal supporter, what would concern me about both of the articles, and the comments resulting from them, is that there's nary a word about re-building the party, and in particular in regions where it is dead or dying a slow death (e.g., Alberta). The LPC can no longer count on winning 70 seats in Quebec like in the good old pre-BQ Trudeau years, and they can no longer count on feasting on a divided right like in the good old Chretien years. As long as the Bloc is around, arguably the most important battlegrounds are Ontario and the other provinces in English-speaking Canada that have significant numbers of seats, i.e., B.C. and Alberta (whose combined seat totals nicely add up to roughly what Trudeau used to win in Quebec). But it's funny — whenever I mention to a Liberal partisan that they really need to quit writing huge swaths of Western Canada off, they look at me like I just advocated necrophilia or something. Then the next reaction is that they usually insult Western Canada and suggest it's full of rednecks, etc. I personally think the party needs a huge attitude adjustment in that regard.

    • The problem is that there are so many different problems, and no easy solution to it all.
      At the end of the day, there is the strategy and the work you put into it, as well as the current events of the times that dictate how things will go. Unless Harper, or the BQ screw up in some super duper way – there just isn't a miracle master plan that can be invoked. Regionalism is choking federal politics….

    • Agreed. But AB is pretty much a dead zone, don't you think? More of a real long term project. BC is definitely in play though…not sure about prospects in Sas and Man? NDP seems to have run the libs out of town in much of the west. But the gotta get outa Toronto – somehow!

      • I agree with your points, and I certainly agree there's no magic bullet. But the thing that kills me is that I don't even see evidence of the LPC either (1) admitting that their lack of representation in the West is a problem, much less (2) actually attempting to do anything at all about it. I really think there's a brain lock going on among a lot of LPC supporters and elites, where they haven't truly woken up to the fact that the dynamic that allowed the Trudeau-Chretien hegemony to exist is no longer there.

        It reminds me of the first step in a 12-step program: admitting you have a problem. Speaking of that, Andrew Steele, who comes from Liberal roots and blogs for the Globe, had a good piece about this recently called "A 12-Step Program for the Liberal Party". I recommend it.

  12. The West will be a tough nut to crack for the Libs,
    when they focus on new social programs and backdoor wealth transfers we can see from 100 miles away.

    Like Lib MPs and constitutional lawyers teaming up with environmentalists in committee to shut down the oilsands via water quality…….funny how ONLY the oilsands is being studied,
    funnier, is how Liberals think we aren't watching……

    • "….backdoor wealth transfers we can see from 100 miles away."

      What about the $2 Billion equalization handover to Quebec in 2007? 100 miles away? That one slapped everyone outside of Quebec across the face.

  13. It would help if Iggy was actually on a road to somewhere, anywhere. Iggy has no identifiable political philosophy, so how he proceeds is largely irrelevant.

    • Iggy should take a page from the Harper playbook by pretending to have a philosophy while in opposition, then quickly jettison it once in power.

  14. There's not enough opposition to the HST to risk losing important ground troops in Ontario and BC.

  15. He should go high road. Harper has the low road cornered, gutter and all.

  16. There is a possible third road — work with McG to reduce the total amount of HST by at least 2%, then stick to road #1 the rest of the time.

  17. Harper assumes Canadians have an IQ of about 80, and he does just fine.

  18. Since Ignatieff's only policy plank so far has been that the consumer tax was the wrong tax to cut because blah blah blah, it will be very tough for him to turn around and say the consumer tax was the wrong tax to raise. Add in the acrimony with McGuinty's team and it would be deadly.
    So look for him to try it!

    Actually, the other road is just as deadly; the idea of Ignatieff coming on to Canadians in full preening peacock mode would be disastrous, though highly entertaining.

    No moves left for Iggy. He will be criticized for waiting for Harper to implode, but that's all that's left to him. Since his success in the short term is really not up to him, he may as well show some principles and do the long term work of building policy rather than worry about his image in the meantime.

  19. OK, let us ponder the situation for a moment…..
    The BC Premier sneaks in a new tax just weeks after forgetting to mention it in an election campaign.
    The Ont. Premier sneaks in a new tax in the middle of his mandate and hopes no one notices.
    Federal Finance minister is muzzled and eventually denies patrimony while he claims it is all a provincial affair.

    So, we get a brand new tax regime that arrives orphaned – a miracle born from no parents.

    And Mr. Coyne believes that our dear Iggy should claim parentage of this new "permanent tax on everything".

  20. It's sad to say, but the electorate has already rejected Ignatieff. He is no phoenix that can rise from the ashes of his own incompetence. There is simply too much ammunition out there in writing to discredit whatever Mr Ignatieff says.

    He is a dead duck leader. You don't flog a dead horse, and you can't ride a dead duck. Iggy should "fall in his sword" and sail off to his villa in France.

  21. A number of people are saying that since populism has worked for Harper, Ignatieff clearly can't take the risk of doing the right thing. Here is the problem- he has failed miserably as a populist. If he is desperate and will lose if he continues down his current path, he should probably try being authentic.

  22. It I also think that, related to that, the LPC has not done a terribly good job of connecting with Main Street Canada these days, and that Harper has done a better job of that in the last 3-4 years. The $1200 child care payment, the GST cuts (however rotten the latter may be from a tax policy perspective), certain anti-crime meaures . . . however cheesy those policies may be, and however much you may disagree with them, they're the kind of stuff that ordinary, apolitical voters can actually grasp. Meanwhile, the LPC is focusing on what right now — the fate of enemy detainees in Afghanistan. I work in an office of around 300 people, I just spent the weekend at dinner parties and the like, and I haven't heard a single, solitary person express the view that they care about that. I realize the issue is important, but that's the reality.

  23. Iggy will never be in power, he not a politician, he's a bookworm. Bookworms are fine but they dont lead the country.I am bored of him ,could we have the next dud from the liberals so we might turf him as well.Liberals, you can hang on for dear life to your party, they smell defeat, they are fearful. The conservatives don't feel this way at all. If I had a Loonie for every talking head, that wants to tell Iggy his next move, I would be extremely rich What these talking heads dont understand is, we dont want Iggy or his party. This biggest laugh is, I remember well the liberals copying the way Manning spoke, they said Harper would have men with guns in ourstrest, yes gutter ads wre abound, they played filthy, past dirty, and onto filthy. Now, its a whole new ball game and your leader(s) are inept and without funds, we, are not.

  24. A lot of people have been making the argument that cheap populism has worked out fine for Harper. I would qualify that heavily. The strongest case the Liberals make against Harper on the economy is that his GST cut whittled away Canada's rainy day fund, and ensured large future deficits. While I find it disingenuous, the biggest and schmaltziest instance of Harper's populism has not really paid of long-term returns. Rather it is Harper's image-making, and micro-targeting that have endeared him to the common man.

    Harper has made a number of tough and unpopular choices as well, which can hardly qualify as populism. The income trust decision, the softwood lumber deal, the war in Afghanistan, the decision to pull out of Kyoto, and sales tax harmonization were all reasonably unpopular moves. They risked alienating voters and angering key interest groups. Yet I think most people would concede that each was the right move in a policy sense. Income trusts would have decimated the tax base and effectively subsidized a less innovative form of corporate organization; the softwood lumber deal was a compromise, but at least means that forestry workers can sell their goods; the war in Afghanistan has gone far from swimmingly, but a complete evacuation would bring destabilization to a strategically important country, and risk creating a breeding ground for terrorism; Kyoto was clearly both unattainable, and is ineffective (it is an agreement largely among countries that have met its requirements); while sales tax harmonization (like the GST) risks severe backlash among economic illiterates in the two most electorally important provinces in the country.

    • He was really great in QP today.Harper that is, Iggy was his usual self.

    • Pull out of Kyoto…did we invade Japan? Or did you mean the dog! (sorry, couldn't resist)

      Actually, the requirements of the Kyoto accord could have be met in time if the country had put into place an energy efficiency strategy right after the accord had been adopted in 1997.

  25. I learned that the Liberals will have a policy meeting in March. if true, this is excellent news.

    The Liberals are not ready to lead a new Canada which has clearly evolved over the past two decades. Thomas Walkom seems unhappy with the direction we've taken but this is only because his brand of social philosophy, bell bottoms and all, no longer cuts it.

    We need strong federalist parties in Canada if we are going to have a true democracy. Hopefully the liberals will recharge, and ready themselves for the brave new world at the start of the 21st century.

  26. Perhaps ….. but Pierre E Trudeau was a scrapper as was Chretien and they surrounded themselves with like minded people.

  27. Boy, it sure would be nice if political leaders were heralded more for policies than image. It's the circle of death. Policies are put aside because of the importance of image, therefore the base policies are neglected, therefore the reliance on image.

  28. Just how suicidal is Iggy anyway? Is he willing to risk cutting his own provincial Ontario Liberals off at the knees in exchange for a bump of a few points in his own polling numbers? Imagine if Iggy helps revive the fortunes of Hudak's Tories while failing to resurrect his own. The upside is limited and fleeting. The downside is huge. Surely Donolo, who was around when Chretien had to swallow his own promise to scrap the GST, can see clearly enough to avoid setting Iggy up like that.

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