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December 16, 2010 – 8:41 pm
National Post

If Michael Ignatieff is ever wounded by the insults and reversals of political life, he hides it well. Neither he nor his wife, Zsuzsanna, has any reason to welcome the press to Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s residence.

Yet, Mr. Ignatieff is in a relaxed mood as he fields a day of interviews. It’s the last interrogation of the day and, far from being in testy humour, he wanders into the living room in an open-necked shirt, laughing away, and takes a bite of Zsuzsanna’s biscotti. It’s as if the daily slings and arrows are directed at someone else.

For any political leader, this apparent state of grace is a very good thing. For a leader of the Liberals — a party in which insanity doesn’t run, it gallops — it has likely saved him from being carted off by the men in the white coats.

Whatever the subject — be it bad polls, anemic fundraising or internal divisions — Mr. Ignatieff takes the sunny outlook. The Liberal leader takes comfort in the fact that he is still within touching distance of the Conservatives and remains one of only two men who has a realistic shot at being prime minister.

Yet, the truth is it hasn’t been a good year for the Liberals: fundraising has been on a downward trajectory for the past 12 months; the party is becalmed in the polls, seemingly unable to take advantage of Conservative missteps; while internal divisions over issues such as the extension of the Afghan mission simmer beneath the surface.

Even the spin-doctors in the Liberal press office couldn’t bedeck their account of 2010, which was issued with the underwhelming title: A Year of Building.

In one of his earlier interviews, Mr. Ignatieff suggested that the party and the electorate are ready for a spring 2011 election. But when I put it to him that this sounds like he is itching to go to the polls, he was more circumspect.

“For nine months, we’ve been saying we disagree with their fiscal and economic policy…. I’m not saying anything today I haven’t been saying for nine months.”

In reality, the Liberals are far from ready to go. A new poll by Abacus Data suggests deep voter disillusionment with the party. More than one-third of Canadians believe the party is divided — including one-quarter of those who identify themselves as Liberals.

The Grits lagged the other two federal parties when it came to leadership, principles and professionalism.

To the casual observer, Mr. Ignatieff has moved his party to the left to fulfil his commitment to be a “progressive, compassionate” alternative to the Conservatives, through policies such as the family home-care plan and opposition to tanker traffic off the West Coast.

Yet the Liberal leader maintains he has kept the party in “the sensible middle of the road.”

“When we move off the centre, we lose our raison d’être, which is to unite Canadians…. If you want social justice combined with fiscal responsibility, combined with standing up for the Canadian military and our alliances around the world, then you have to choose the Liberal party…. Moving this party to the left means you abandon the commitment to fiscal responsibility and deficit control,” he said.

This is where the divisions emerge because Mr. Ignatieff is clearly to the right of many Liberals, who would dearly love for their party to consolidate the progressive vote.

Says one senior Liberal: “There are all kinds of problems — money, candidates, the leader’s various issues — but they could be overcome to a very large degree if the party had the courage to chart a clear, values-based progressive course. That ain’t going to happen under His Igness, who is basically a conservative dressed up as a progressive.”

This is an argument that seems to be being whispered with increasing volume.

A more immediate problem for an activist Liberal party is the cupboards are bare. The Liberal leader once said: “Canada is a hard country to dream in.” Since the recession, it’s become harder still.

Many of the Liberals’ plans are based on spending the $6-billion in corporate tax cuts that Mr. Ignatieff said he will freeze. Unfortunately for him, another $1.6-billion of that sum will pass into law on Jan. 1, treading on the Liberal leader’s dreams by reducing the amount he has to spend.

Still, he is determined that when the party platform does emerge, it will be “fiscally prudent and disciplined.”

“To be the party of the centre, means being the party of responsibility,” he said.

It may take another year of building before many left-wing Liberals are convinced that salvation can be found in the mushy middle.

National Post

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