Michael Ignatieff has real trouble distinguishing between rhetoric and reality. At his press outing yesterday, where he explained the deal he had reached with Stephen Harper, he was asked how the unemployed would benefit from the decision of the Liberals and Conservatives to set up a Blue Ribbon panel to study qualifications for Employment Insurance. The panel will report in late September. On Monday, the Liberal leader had insisted that something had to be done about EI this summer. Yesterday, he tried to claim that the unemployed were the beneficiaries of the arrangement he has made with the Harper government.

Ignatieff may actually believe that an unemployed Canadian who doesn’t qualify for EI — most of them don’t — will enjoy a better life while the members of the Blue Ribbon Panel meet over muffins and latte. The enjoyment will have to be ethereal rather than material, of course, the sort of enjoyment one might derive from sitting through a seminar led by the verbose Liberal leader.

At the end of September, the panel will report, and the Liberals and Conservatives will check the polls and decide whether to provoke an election or come to another deal among themselves.

In January, when Michael Ignatieff trashed his party’s coalition with the NDP and announced that the Liberals would vote for Jim Flaherty’s budget, he promised Canadians that he would watch the Harper government “like a hawk.” Since then, the Hawk has flapped his wings a few times, but he has remained firmly perched on the Prime Minister’s shoulder.

Ignatieff dismisses the NDP and the Bloc as oppositional parties that should not be taken seriously. In truth, without the votes of these two parties, the Liberal leader would not be in a position to threaten Harper’s hold on office.

And he’s less than candid when he claims that the only way to come to the aid of the unemployed was through a deal with Stephen Harper. There was another way, and he knows it. The Liberals could have negotiated a deal on EI qualifications with the NDP and the Bloc to be presented to parliament this week. These three parties — holding the majority of seats in the House — could have told Harper to take the EI deal or face defeat in a confidence vote.

There would then have been a real showdown in Ottawa, not the staged farce we’ve sat through. The odds are that Harper would have caved. There would have been no summer election. The difference is that thousands of unemployed Canadians would have received EI, starting now.