Getting Iggy with it: How the NDP should respond

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By now, unless you have been without TV or Internet access, you’ve probably seen the Conservative ads attacking new Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. The ads portray Ignatieff as a rich, arrogant elitist who spent most of his adult life outside of Canada and who speaks French with a Parisian accent.

Their approach is interesting in that what they are saying is essentially the truth -- something normally quite alien to the Conservatives -- and because elitism is a quality more often associated with the Tories themselves.

Indeed, New Democrats watching the commercials may well have been torn. Should they be angry about the Conservatives’ continuing propensity for negative campaigning (and don’t believe for a minute they haven’t got a strategy ready to attack Jack Layton if he starts edging up in the polls at their expense) and their use of pre-writ spending to get around election spending limits? Or, should they quietly let the Conservatives duke it out with negative messages while thinking to themselves, “Hey, that’s exactly what we think of Ignatieff/Harper”?

For the most part, the NDP’s strategy towards the Liberals has not changed with the palace coup that made Ignatieff the first Liberal leader since Laurier to avoid the unpleasant messiness of a contested leadership convention. The NDP has continued to point out that it is only through the active support of the Liberal caucus in 71 consecutive confidence votes that Stephen Harper continues to reside at 24 Sussex.

With the Liberals’ cavalier abandonment of the promising coalition arrangement of last November, the NDP can also point out that Ignatieff had a practical alternative to the equally unpleasant options of leaving Harper in office and forcing the fourth federal election campaign in five years.

Instead of taking that option, Ignatieff chose to position himself as Dion 2.0 -- claiming to be opposed to the Conservative agenda, while actively ensuring that it gets implemented in every detail. The Liberals think that all they needed was a new face; what they actually need is a new spine.

Back in March, Rick Mercer accurately pointed out the lack of substance as Ignatieff’s Achilles heel. "Michael Ignatieff really wants to be Prime Minister. Of that there is no doubt. In fact, he is so committed to the idea of running Canada, he moved here to do it... So he's here now, he's fully committed, but I can't help but wonder: does he have any opinions on anything? Because I haven't really heard them. In fact Tory backbenchers have more to say about public policy and most of them have had their tongues removed. It seems to me the only thing we really know about Iggy is his resume. And if you talk to any Liberals and you ask them any questions about Iggy, that's what they do, they quote his resume.... Michael you might be a very smart guy, but Canadians, we're not that stupid. You think you should be Prime Minister? Fine, but showing up is not good enough. Eventually, you're going to have to tell us why."

Then again, to say that the Liberals have abandoned their principles would assume that they had any principles to begin with. The fact is, up until now, not standing for anything has always worked pretty well for the Liberals. They didn’t get dubbed “Canada’s natural governing party” by accident, but because they were in power for three-quarters of the last century. Getting back to that point from where they are now -- essentially “Canada’s national grovelling party” -- is Ignatieff’s overriding goal, one that is far more important to the party than the actual seat count after the next election.

It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives attack ads or the New Democrats attempts to draw attention to the de facto Conservative-Liberal coalition will goad Ignatieff into actually taking a stand on something. He’s given some rhetorical signs that reform of the Employment Insurance system might be a trench that he’s willing to die in, going so far as to adopt NDP and Bloc policies on the issue as his own talking points.

Of course, those with any kind of historical memory will know that it was the Liberals who did most of the damage to EI in the 1990s, from the Orwellian name change to the eligibility limits that exclude so many people from collecting when they lose their jobs. Ignatieff’s promise that the Liberals will fix EI is a bit like O.J. Simpson promising to devote himself to finding “the real killer.”

While we wait in vain for the Liberals to develop a collective conscience, we can expect more of the same from them.

As Chantal Hebert noted in a column aimed at dampening talk of a summer election, “for all the recent talk of a change in dancing partner for the minority Conservatives [pundits have been working themselves into a lather speculating about Harper making a deal with Layton or Duceppe], the Liberals remain the cheapest date on offer to the government in the House of Commons.”

Scott Piatkowski is an NDP activist and a former rabble columnist.

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