Ignatieff's career option: Coalition or bust

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The Leader of the Official Opposition has put the Harper government on notice. The prime minister must cancel the scheduled reduction in the corporate income tax (worth $10 billion in lost revenue over three years) in the upcoming federal budget, or the Liberal party will vote against his government. In this case, unless it gets the (unlikely) support of the NDP or the Bloc in a budget vote, the Harper government will fall, triggering a Spring election.

Michael Ignatieff has not registered positively with the public for his leadership qualities. The Liberal Party trails the Conservatives in the polls. Why, then, would the Liberal leader want to precipitate an election? If his party cannot displace the Conservatives as the leading party in the House of Commons in an election, Ignatieff would be forced to resign as leader of the party. So either he thinks he can win, or he is looking forward to making a career change.

In his pre-budget/pre-election campaign speech at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, Ignatieff sounded as though he had the government's number. The Conservative Party were on a reckless spending spree. Canadians did not want to see their government spending billions on fighter jets, without even sending the contract out for tender; spending billions on prisons, when the crime was falling; and giving tax cut gifts to corporations, when Canadian families needed support for child and family care, and help for sending their children on to post-secondary education.

As Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star reported in closing his caucus retreat Ignatieff was in fighting form: "It's not about being ready for an election. It's about being ready to serve. It's about being ready to fight for the country you love. The country you grew up in; the country you want to hand off to your children and grandchildren...."

A year ago, the Liberal Party offered Canadians "the big red tent," a political home where there was room for diversity of opinion. Ignatieff may have staked out the middle ground as widely as possible, but his party has not been able to bring traditional Conservative voters under its tent.

Now Ignatieff sounds like he wants to bring the anti-Harper forces -- swing voters, and non-voters -- together behind the Liberal party "to replace" the government. He says a Liberal vote is not "a protest vote" alluding to a vote for the NDP, and it is not "a negative vote" alluding to a vote for the Bloc.

The Liberals were once the "natural governing party," normally at each election playing the "ins" to the Conservative "outs" (or what the CCF/NDP called Tweedledee to Tweedledum). Unfortunately for Micheal Ignatieff, historically the electoral success of the Liberals was based on its dominance over the Quebec electorate, something it lost in 1984, has never regained, and is not about to do tomorrow. Among Francophone Quebecers, the Liberals trail the NDP in support.

The Canadian first-past-the-post electoral system favours strong regionally based parties (such as the Bloc in Quebec, and the Conservatives in Alberta) and the Liberals no longer dominate in any region. The Liberal heartland is urban Canada, where the Conservatives hold few seats, except on the Prairies, and where Liberal gains have to be made at the expense of the NDP.

Given current party standings in the House (Conservatives 143, Liberals 77, Bloc 47, NDP 36) the Liberals need the Conservatives to lose 33 seats and themselves gain 33 seats just in order to draw even with the Harper-led party.

Liberal hopes of defeating Conservative members rests on winning the election campaign. Liberal Party pollster Michael Marzolini hypothesizes that only about 15 per cent of the public follows politics. When an election is called, Canadians start paying attention. When the campaign lights go on, the current support levels for the Conservatives will drop, and the Liberals will be able to move up in support.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives have already started advertising in advance of the campaign. Spending gobs of public money to promote "Canada's economic action plan" has a subliminal effect: it makes people feel good about the Conservatives.

Attack ads directed against the Liberal leader weaken his image with Canadians. Most of what the viewing public sees of Ignatieff on television is a made-up version of himself packaged by the Conservatives.

History shows advertising works. Repetition makes negative advertising messages very powerful. The strategy worked to discredit the previous Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, and the Conservatives believe it can work again. Indeed, it may be working already.

The best the Liberal leader can hope for is that the combined efforts of the three opposition parties will result in the defeat of enough Conservatives, that the NDP and the Liberals together could form a government by defeating the Conservatives on the speech from the throne following the election. A coalition government with more combined Liberals and NDP than Conservatives is what Harper fears most, and not only because he would he no longer be prime minister. After losing office, his tenure as Conservative party leader would likely end as well.

Upon becoming Liberal leader, Ignatieff rejected the option of forming a government with the NDP. If he wants to avoid a career change, Ignatieff has to understand that he will only become prime minister as leader of a coalition government, and act accordingly.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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