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Michael Ignatieff

Why bashing Michael Ignatieff beats talking policy

Michael Ignatieff 51%

button ElectionsMeter.com

May 26, 2009 04:30 AM


OTTAWA: Dinner parties and political parties have something in common: The most memorable rise above talking about people to discuss events and then explore ideas.

That premise is at the centre of the continuing struggle to dominate the national conversation and set the table for yet another federal election. Conservatives want the country fuming about a "just visiting" Michael Ignatieff. Liberals, the NDP and Bloc prefer to focus attention on the recession and the government's response.

So after a couple of weeks of deconstructing controversial attack ads, the partisan chatter today is all about employment insurance, the topic consuming Parliament before Stephen Harper began negatively branding his challenger. Conservatives are tinkering with modest EI changes in an effort to shift the conversation back to leadership comparisons. Opposition parties, keen to reinforce the connection between Tories and tough times, are demanding sweeping changes to a system that, among other weaknesses, can't cope with the double-whammy of disappearing manufacturing jobs and Ontario's newly diminished status as the federation's unlikely beggar.

Mostly to raise the volume, all four parties are yammering about a summer election fought over EI reform. Accidents do kill minority governments so anything is possible in a place where power, not problem-solving, is the priority.

Still, the combined weight of common sense and self-preservation suggest more shouting, not the fourth election in five years. It wouldn't be easy for Conservatives to defend an insurance program seen to unfairly punish workers in central Canada where the party most needs votes. Neither the NDP nor the Bloc is ready to test resurgent Liberal strength and there's enough difference in party positions – Liberals support only temporary EI changes – to avoid the unanimity needed to topple a government still finding its footing.

Assuming that's the way spring unfolds, Canadians should brace for a long, hot summer. With economic relief a distant oasis, the most promising Conservative tactic is to make more of those odious comparisons between their leader, the one voters now know even if they may never love, and the one who remains an enigma.

Limiting debate to leadership is a straw worth clutching. Recessions are notoriously difficult for the party in power – this month's B.C. election is an intriguing exception – and Harper's approval ratings remain a singular glimmer in what Conservatives now privately concede is a bleak situation.

Trouble is, asking a seminal question without knowing the answer is always dangerous and the one Conservatives are posing is particularly risky. Along with making voters judges in what amounts to a political beauty pageant, it inadvertently asks them to choose between inward and outward visions of the country's future. Stretching beyond the stereotypical Tim Hortons and Starbucks comparison, one offers the homespun values of family and faith; the other the less certain, more cosmopolitan challenges of global competition.

To escape their looming fate, Conservatives are counting on a core constituency with diddly-squat in common with a Liberal leader who succeeded abroad and taught at Harvard. Even if other Canadians conclude that accomplished, smart and worldly are prime ministerial assets, bran. ing Ignatieff as not-like-us is still a better option for Harper than debating EI, this government's seismic policy shifts or the recession.


James Travers


Resource: thestar.com

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