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A coming surprise for Michael Ignatieff

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During the 2008 federal election, Jack Layton staked out some important public policy positions that Michael Ignatieff took extraordinary steps to oppose.

The NDP Leader argued that:

» corporate tax cuts should be discontinued, since Canadians have more important priorities that need to be addressed;

» Canada's public pension system needs to be strengthened; and

» the climate-change crisis needs to be addressed through a continental cap-and-trade system, negotiated with the new Obama administration.

Mr. Ignatieff would have none of this. And so, in early 2009, Mr. Ignatieff reneged on the Liberal Party's signed coalition agreement with Mr. Layton's party. Mr. Ignatieff then kept Stephen Harper in office for two years, so that Mr. Ignatieff's preferred policies on these and other issues could be pursued.

And then a funny thing happened.

In 2010 (and into early 2011), the Liberal Leader made the following announcements:

» Mr. Ignatieff now believes that corporate tax cuts should be discontinued, since Canadians have more important priorities that need to be addressed. Even though Mr. Ignatieff is the co-author of precisely the corporate tax cuts he now rails against, having supplied Mr. Harper with the votes in the House of Commons he needed to implement them.

» Mr. Ignatieff now believes that Canada's public pension system needs to be strengthened. A topic he previously ignored. The Liberal Leader's pension policy is essentially a word-for-word lift from Mr. Layton's proposal.

» And Mr. Ignatieff now believes that climate change needs to be addressed through a continental cap-and-trade proposal negotiated with the Obama administration. Mr. Ignatieff is the author of the Liberal Party's own, ill-fated carbon tax/tax shift proposal (a policy he inserted into his party's policy DNA when running for Liberal leader against Stéphane Dion in 2006). And he is also responsible for Mr. Harper's own policies on this issue, having engineered and sustained the Prime Minister's second term.

What are we to make of Mr. Ignatieff's sudden embrace of Mr. Layton's policies -- policies he went to most extraordinary lengths to prevent from being implemented, while voting only months ago to support their opposites under Mr. Harper?

The answer is that Mr. Ignatieff, like many of his sort, apparently holds the people of Canada in contempt.

Mr. Ignatieff therefore feels safe placing a bet that most Canadians don't follow or understand federal politics or policies. And that he therefore won't be held accountable for his record as a principal opponent of the policies he now passionately advocates -- for the moment -- and as the principal enabler of Conservative policies that pull in the precisely opposite direction.

To be fair to Mr. Ignatieff and his team, this has worked for his party before.

For example, in 1974 Pierre Trudeau campaigned with similar passion against wage and price controls ("zap, you're frozen!"), which he then implemented. Conceivably, this conduct might work again. But as people in his party have become painfully aware, Mr. Ignatieff is no Pierre Trudeau.

And as demonstrated in much recent research into what most Canadians think of Mr. Ignatieff's party and of his leadership (here, for example), Canadians -- insufficiently amusing backwater-dwellers that we might be from his perspective -- are smarter than he seems to think.

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