Over the last few days, in an apparently deliberate attempt to signal a shift in the federal Liberal Party’s approach to Alberta, rookie leader Michael Ignatieff has been busy wooing the oil sands, that homely but lucrative spot in the Western hinterlands. This from the party that, under former leader Stéphane Dion, campaigned on the Green Shift? “It’s kind if astonishing,” laughs Michael Bliss, the retired University of Toronto historian and distinguished political observer. “If you were a Liberal follower, it’s like when the party line changes in Moscow—you’ve suddenly got to be very agile. You run in the election campaign in favour of carbon taxes and all of a sudden you’re a friend of the tar sands.”
The first smell of this came, appropriately enough, in Vancouver’s Gastown district last week during a pub-night exchange between Ignatieff and a group of youthful Liberals. It was all caught on video, including the hubbub that erupted when Ignatieff declared: “This is where a chill falls over the room because everybody expects me to say they’re terrible and shut them down.” Then he raises his voice above the crowd. “Absolutely not,” he cries. Describing the oil sands as “awe-inspiring,” he goes on to argue that the resource gives Canada hammer in the world. Then there’s the little side issue of Alberta. “Energy policy in our country is a national unity issue,” he says. “The dumbest thing you can do, and no Liberal must ever do it, is run against Alberta, make Alberta the enemy.”
What is he up to? Such a liability is the Liberal brand in Alberta that the provincial iteration of the party is now considering dropping the name entirely. Surely Ignatieff doesn’t believe he can make inroads in Alberta by making nice-nice with its sands?
“I think the question is whether he’s doing it deliberately or whether he’s winging it and making up policy on the fly,” says Bliss, making reference to Ignatieff’s bungles on the Quebec nation question and Israel’s bombing of the village of Qana, in Lebanon, during the 2006 Liberal leadership race. “He has had a tendency in the past to get into Joe Bidenisms.”
But Ignatieff’s position on the Alberta oil sands, Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases, appears deliberate, thought out, strategic. He has repeated it in a chat with the Calgary Herald editorial board and, this week, during a question and answer event with students in Quebec, in full view of le Trudeau.
What does he have to lose? “Given that the oil sands are in such desperate shape right now,” says Canada West Foundation President and CEO Roger Gibbins, “it’s kind of a free ride for Ignatieff to say good things about the oil sands because the environmental critique has kind of lost a lot of its sting.” Adds Gibbins: “It’s also a recognition that the political agenda has shifted in a very significant way from concern about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions to a concern about the economy.”
More than that, the shift in position has much to recommend it, says University of Calgary political scientist and former Harper advisor Tom Flanagan. “I think it’s part of a broader strategy to bring the Liberal Party back into the centre,” he says. Indeed, Ignatieff has been stepping in line with the Tories in a number of ways: by stepping back from the Bloc-supported Liberal-NDP coalition, now making goo-goo eyes at the oil sands, and by taking a position on Israel’s Gaza offensive similar to that of the Conservatives.
Ignatieff, then, is matching the Harper government, biding his time until an issue emerges that he can seize on and take the advantage. “Harper did quite a lot of this too when he was leader of the opposition,” says Flanagan. “Moving the Liberals to the centre is a short term necessity for Ignatieff –and the oil sands position is part of that.”
That’s the short term. But Ignatieff’s cozying up to Alberta hints something more far-fetched. Ever think a one-time Reformer (Harper) would ever make inroads in Quebec? How about 10 Tory seats in the province in 2006 (we’ll forget what happened last November). Is it so far-fetched to think the Liberals could, years down the road, do similar magic? “Ignatieff has said repeatedly that the Liberal party has to rebuild in the west,” says Flanagan. “They have to have more western support if they ever hope to form any kind of stable government again.”