The Liberal platform: simplicity itself

The most telling moment in Michael Ignatieff’s launch event for the full Liberal platform today in Ottawa came in an off-the-cuff comment he made after a video presentation on the party’s education policy.

Up on a big screen above a crowd arranged in a circle around Ignatieff, a series of Liberal candidates, all women, had been delivering brief presentations on the various key themes in the platform.

Wendy Yuan, who is trying to unseat NDP incumbent Don Davies in the hotly contested Vancouver-Kingsway riding, wrapped up her pre-taped pitch on education with a favourite Ignatieff slogan: “You get the grades, you get to go.”

The audience in the basement conference room of a downtown Ottawa hotel dutifully let loose with a longer than average burst of applause.  “That sounds pretty popular,” Ignatieff crowed. “You get the grades, you get to go. It’s like all these policies—they’re simple, they’re easy to understand, they address a real need of Canadian families.”

That’s something Ignatieff occasionally does: allude directly to the tactical formulation behind something he’s saying or doing. In this case, one might shrug off the “simple, easy to understand” description as merely stating the obvious.

Look at the five featured items in what the Liberals are calling their “Family Pack” platform: $1 billion a year toward grants for students going to college or university; $500 million a year for new child care spaces;  $1 billion in benefits for those who stay home to care for old or ill family members; $400 million to boost the Guaranteed Income Supplement; and, new today, $400 million for a tax credit for energy-saving home renovations.

These are indeed easy to grasp, and aimed at family matters. No doubt that’s good politics. Nobody needs reminding of how hard it was for Stéphane Dion to make his carbon tax plan seem comprehensible and relevant. Or how Paul Martin’s big themes, demographic change and the rise of Asian economic competitors, sounded remote from the day-to-day.

Ignatieff’s more campaign-friendly, family-centric messaging has been in development for about a year, and started to take shape clearly last fall, when he unveiled his family caregivers plan. His sure-footed start to this campaign owes everything to that patient preparation.

Yet there was a moment late in today’s show, after Ignatieff had touted his platform’s simplicity, when I wondered if it’s enough. He took a question submitted online by a 19-year-old from Montréal, who pleaded for a policy on global warming, noting that his generation would have to live with climate change.

All Ignatieff had to point to by way of an answer was that reno tax credit and a Liberal promise to move more quickly to end a oil-sands development tax break, which the Conservatives are winding down anyway by 2015, and push the money saved in environmentally desirable directions.

It wasn’t terribly convincing. But a fuller answer—one that, say, explained how he hopes to make good on his party’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050—couldn’t possibly have met his test of being easy to understand and addressed at family preoccupations.

Made me wonder what Dion would have said.


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