Monday, October 5, 2009

After a summer fling, faded love

What a difference five months make. As Michael Ignatieff's position as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada was ratified at the party's May 2009 convention, party members exhaled for the first time in months and, while hardly euphoric, the mood was generally optimistic. Since then party fortunes have spiralled downward while the Conservatives have gained ground in public opinion polls, most recently registering 37 per cent support nationally compared to the Liberals at 27 per cent in an Angus Reid/Toronto Star poll released last Thursday.

Momentum has shifted, and the trend is not your friend if it's running against you. Canada's "natural governing party" now appears headed for a prolonged spell in opposition while the widely disliked Stephen Harper is now thought by some to be headed for majority government.

What happened? Here's my take:
• Ignatieff was "ratified" into the party leadership, rather than winning a contest for delegates at the May convention. This kind of thing always has the bad smell of back room manouvering, and inevitably causes wounds within the party that are slow to heal. Bob Rae took the high road and fell on his sword (interesting imagery there), but his supporters (reportedly including Chretien) were miffed.

• The opposition mantel never fits comfortably on Liberal shoulders and, when it is worn for an extended period, the party becomes a bag of alley cats. Serious tensions are turning into destructive in-fighting that is now tumbling out into public view. This isn't conducive to earning public confidence, plus memories of the sponsorship scandal and other sins have not faded from memory, and many think more time in the woodshed might be salutary.

• Harper will never be loved, but he is morphing into a guy who Canadians might tolerate. Fears are waning that he will set up a branch office of the White House, rip up the social safety net, and run interference for the the oil industry. Many citizens still don't trust him, but he's no longer as scary as his early Reform Party/Wall Around Alberta rhetoric implied. Harper the ideologue has yielded to Harper the pragmatist because he knows you can't change things if you can't get elected. Consequently, voters are less convinced of the need to renew the minority government insurance policy against right wing nuts running amok.

• Old grudges held by former Progressive Conservatives are finally dissipating. Most red Tories were repelled by the post-takeover party's Reform roots and lack of interest in social issues. After flirting with the Libs, many are coming back to the fold, although Harper could alienate them again if he takes a chainsaw to social programs and starves the nonprofit sector that is the delivery system for much of what makes Canada liveable.

• For many, Ignatieff comes off, perhaps unfairly, as stiff, pompous, patronizing, a Canadian version of presidential candidate John Kerry, and he provokes some of the same responses. He compares unfavourably with the relaxed confidence of Obama. People wonder whether his ivory tower career has disconnected him from the concerns of regular folk, and whether an academic can become a skilled manager.

• Ignatieff hasn't yet articulated a vision or a policy platform that might inspire voters to take a closer look. "We can do better" doesn't resonate with citizens who have just seen their country come through a serious recession with much less pain than that experienced south of the border, and who are now hearing that recovery is on the way. Castigating Harper for deficit spending to mitigate the impact of that recession has a hollow, even cynical, ring.

• Separatist fervour has cooled in Quebec, as has Liberal influence there, removing one of the traditional implied threats used to scare electors in the ROC away from voting Conservative.

• Canadians are tired of the schoolyard gotcha antics and lack of statesmanship demonstrated by both major party leaders, including Ignatieff's recent, transparent, posturing around withdrawing his support of the government. Forced to be spectators at this tiresome, unproductive political game, they are increasingly inclined to give the Conservatives a majority in the hope that having a permanent zookeeper will restore order and focus more attention on real and serious national problems.
Nonetheless, while Harper seems to presently enjoy the Big Mo, there are widespread concerns about his overly controlling management style, the lack of depth around his cabinet table, his image as a mean-spirited bully who lacks empathy, the redneck character of much of his caucus, and the suspicion that he might take back ground won by liberals on such touchstone issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Finally, the Harper government has not endeared itself to southern Ontario, opting to score cheap points in Moose Jaw and Red Deer by disparaging Toronto, and largely ignoring the industrial heartland's distress. One can only wonder at this political calculus when the GTA and the Golden Horseshoe have 18.5% of the seats in the House of Commons, more than Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan combined.

How much of this will matter come the next election? In modern politics with its poorly informed electorates, style usually trumps substance, so the image designers will be trying to buff the elitist, wonkish edges off both of these guys. Neither man has charisma, so expect more "likeable guy" pieces on Steve, more "regular guy" photo ops for Ig. Should be entertaining.

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