Ignatieff gets personal

In launching the Liberals' new family care policy, Iggy shows his human side

Getting personal

Darryl Dyck/CP/ Sean Kilpatrick/CP

It was at once Michael Ignatieff’s most nakedly personal moment as Liberal leader, and his most carefully constructed policy pledge. In announcing a $1-billion-a-year plan to help those who need to stay home to take care of a sick or aging family member, Ignatieff invoked the memory of his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease—a family ordeal he fictionalized in his 1993 novel Scar Tissue. He conveyed the toll that caring for her exacted on his elderly father in raw terms. “In my view,” he said, “it pretty much killed him.”

Critics cringed at what sounded to them like too intimate a reference point for framing a partisan policy commitment. But sympathetic Liberals approved of Ignatieff’s heartfelt tone. Either way, he seemed to have, at least for the instant, shucked off the aura of the aloof intellectual that his Tory tormentors have tried to make him wear since he took over the Liberal party in late 2008. That glimpse of tragic family lore, combined with the policy heft of the family care plan, added up to the clearest sign of how Ignatieff is repositioning himself and his party for the next election.

Close observers of federal politics are taking note. Pollster Nik Nanos detects a shift away from the big-picture economic and environmental themes that dominated the Liberal message under Paul Martin and then Stéphane Dion. Nanos sees Ignatieff crafting policy with “closer proximity” to the day-to-day anxieties of middle-class families. “When the home care policy was rolled out,” Nanos says, “I saw it as a signal from the Liberals that they’re not ceding the family to the Conservatives as a key political battleground.”

Jim Armour, vice-president of public affairs at the government consulting firm Summa and a former Tory strategist, sees the Liberals aiming social policy at particular middle-class voters. Tailoring tax breaks in much the same way has been a forte of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, notably through niche policies like the now-ended home renovation tax credit and the fitness tax credit for children’s sports and other physical-activity programs. “The Liberals are slowly getting their act together,” Armour says. “The approach is a lot different than the last election or even the last few elections.”

The challenge for Ignatieff will be to pace his policy announcements to carry a sense of momentum toward a highly uncertain election date. Harper’s minority might yet be defeated in the House this fall, although operatives in all parties tend to view next spring, or even next autumn, as more likely federal campaign seasons. So the Liberal family care plan—a proposed six-month Employment Insurance benefit, similar to the existing EI parental leave payments, paired with a tax break aimed at low- and middle-income family caregivers—will ultimately be judged by how it fits together with other policies still in the works. Key among them, according to Liberal officials: pension reform meant to ease Canadians’ worries about saving enough for retirement, and measures on early childhood and making post-secondary schooling more affordable.

There’s nothing improvised about Ignatieff’s policy-making and image-remaking process. A year ago this month, nearing the end of a disastrous 2009, he purged his office’s senior ranks and brought in Peter Donolo, a veteran of former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s operation, as his new chief of staff. In turn, Donolo recruited Brian Bohunicky, a former top Liberal aide from the Chrétien years, to come back as Ignatieff’s top policy adviser. Donolo and Bohunicky used a so-called thinkers’ conference in Montreal last March to set policy themes and kick off a step-by-step plan for developing a fresh platform.

The key decision Ignatieff announced in Montreal, however, was less about policies than how to pay for them. Echoing the NDP position, he said a Liberal government would save billions by freezing corporate taxes. The Conservatives have pledged to reduce the business income tax rate from the current 18 per cent to 16.5 per cent at the beginning of 2011, and 15 per cent in 2012. But for months, senior Liberals remained unsure whether Ignatieff meant to hold that tax rate to whatever level it’s at when their party wins power, or actually roll back reductions the Tories have already implemented. As of last week, his position is clear—a Liberal government that takes office next year, or even the year after, would hike the rate back up to today’s 18 per cent.

Reversing business tax cuts and halting future reductions stand to boost the government’s revenues by more than $5 billion a year. Harper quickly slammed the Liberal plan as “billions of dollars of tax hikes on ordinary Canadians and on job creators.” Ignatieff tried to draw the battle lines his own way: “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives choose tax breaks for corporations; we choose to help Canadian families.” So the contrast over taxation in the campaign to come is looking stark. As for the policy clash, the Liberals’ family care package is a revealing first look at how they hope to define the ballot choice.

For now, Liberal insiders won’t say how soon Ignatieff is likely to roll out more policy, or which ideas he’ll hold in reserve to make a splash during a campaign. Those tactical decisions remain either works in progress or closely guarded secrets. Still, broad strokes are known. Keith Ambachtsheer, a pension guru at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, made a big impression on Ignatieff’s advisers at the Montreal conference with his proposal for a supplementary Canada Pension Plan, which working Canadians would have to opt out of if they chose not to participate. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s negotiations with the provinces on enhancing the Canada Pension Plan were to have been wrapped up later this year, but are taking longer than expected. That could give the Liberals time to flesh out their own plan before a Tory-led CPP reform takes shape.

Ignatieff has vowed child care will be another major thrust. But unlike the deals with the provinces to create more daycare spaces negotiated by Martin’s short-lived Liberal government, and then promptly cancelled by Harper, Ignatieff is expected to frame early childhood policy as just one part of a bigger learning package that’s expected also to include measures to help families afford post-secondary education for their children.

How Ignatieff pitches those policies could be as important to his political fortunes as the ideas themselves. To sell the family care policy, he crossed the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill to the Gatineau, Que., home of Michael Lemieux, who fought a rare form of cancer for several years. Lemieux’s wife, Helene Hardy, used up her vacation time and sick leave, and then stayed home from work many more days, taking care of him. Compare that poignant venue to Dion’s use of a parliamentary committee room when he announced his ill-fated “green shift” environment policy back in 2008. Ignatieff’s visit to Lemieux and Hardy smacked more of Harper’s frequent photo-ops in living rooms, kitchens and backyards during the 2008 campaign.

“Ignatieff’s stealing a page from Stephen Harper,” observed one experienced Conservative strategist.

At least, a page from the playbook of the campaign-trail Harper. More recently, the Prime Minister has rarely seemed focused on files that might be easily presented as kitchen-table issues. The early months of 2010 were dominated by his government’s controversial decision to suspend Parliament. Then there was an uproar over cutting off foreign aid that might fund abortion in developing countries. The cancelling of the long-form census dominated the summer, and the purchase of F-35 fighter jets has been a big issue this fall. Even the big economic questions, as the government shifts from stimulus spending to deficit reduction, are hard to cast in terms that directly touch the lives of voters.

Some Conservatives are worried about the impression the government is conveying. “It’s very much fighting brush fires and continuing to govern,” Armour says. “What I’ve been noticing is there is no real Conservative agenda.” Of course, that’s bound to change when an election is more imminent. As well, the Prime Minister’s Office is in a transitional phase, with Harper’s new chief of staff, Toronto businessman Nigel Wright, preparing to take over at the start of 2011.

By contrast, Ignatieff’s crew, steeped in their Chrétien-era experience, appears, at least temporarily, more methodical and workmanlike. With their family care proposal on the table, and the exposed feeling in Ignatieff’s presentation of it showing him in a new light, it’s now clear that the next Liberal campaign won’t much resemble the last one. The battle for the attention and votes of stressed-out middle-class Canadians is on.

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