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Don Martin: Can this Liberal leader be saved?

Posted by Oped 2710 days ago National Post| don martin liberal leader saved All
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With
the Liberal drain spiral swirling inexorably closer to, if not slurping
below, the 25 per cent threshold which separates governments-in-waiting
from fringe party popularity, the difficult question has to be asked:
Can Iggy be saved?

Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff hosted many deep thinkers to
devise policy this spring, hired experienced players to run his office
last winter and has consulted on issues with everyone from students to
seniors in every corner of the country.  

Nothing gels into upticks in personal or party approval, even with the
federal Conservatives giving him unexpected gifts like a reopened
abortion debate, a fired cabinet minister, questionable lobbying by a
former MP and condemnation of paranoid government secrecy from all
sides.

The latest EKOS poll - and keep in mind this is the same pollster the
Conservatives have falsely accused of being a Liberal stooge - shows
34.4 per cent of decided voters pledge their support to the
Conservatives, 25.1 per cent for the Liberals and 15.3 per cent for the
NDP.

If this poll is a Liberal-friendly finding, the party should start
looking over its shoulder with alarm at closing-in NDP numbers in other
polls to come.  

But perhaps the strangest strategy is something Ignatieff's
understandably apprehensive MPs are questioning during their last weeks
in their local ridings before the summer recess begins in mid-June. Why
is their leader wandering their political wastelands?

There was a saying in Ralph Klein's Alberta that vote-seeking politicians should hunt where the ducks are.
Ignatieff is either a rank amateur hunter or one with terribly bad aim
because he's looking for support in all the wrong places.

Far from shoring up his existing stable of shaky metropolitan seats,
the man has boldly gone to regions and wooed demographics where Liberal
electoral hope floats only in his vivid imagination.

A leader whose only firm position seemed to be his urge to become Prime
Minister responded to criticism of having a void for policy with a dump
of interesting ideas.  

So did he make promises to keep his fracturing base intact? Nope.
Ignatieff strayed as far as possible from the party's traditional
support in the MTV - Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver - triangle by
appealing to rural Canada.

A national food strategy to help the family farm is commendable and his
rural health care initiative welcome, but roaming Saskatchewan to
insist the province has been ignored by Conservatives with a hammerlock
on all but one seat is not a productive use of the leader's time.  

Then there was his two-day tour this week of Alberta. This is the most
lopsided anti-Liberal place in the country, with EKOS finding 57 per
cent approval for the Conservatives verses 17 per cent for the
Liberals, a second place finish surpassed by the combined voter support
for the NDP and Greens.

Jean Chretien knew how to handle southern Alberta when he was prime
minister. When I was covering his 2000 campaign, we flew directly over
Calgary and I asked a senior aide if the tour was planning any Cowtown
touchdowns. "What do you see out the window?," he asked me
rhetorically. "There's not a winnable seat for us within 300 kilometres
of this spot. Why would we bother?"

It's hard to argue that strategy. Yet Igantieff waded into Calgary this
week for a private chat with African community leaders and emerged to
vow he would never campaign against the oilsands, which is a big
so-what? to Calgarians and not exactly a vote-getter in Quebec.  

Then he appeared to support continuing blocking the Auditor
General from probing MP expenses.  "There is accountability that is in
itself a waste of public money. Do you understand what I am saying?,"
he lectured reporters. Um, no. Does that mean the Auditor General would
be wasting money verifying MP expenses? Almost every voter in every
province would disagree.

It would be folly to write off the Liberals in what could still be a year-long wait for the next election.
The Liberal brand has historic staying power and Ignatieff can, when he
steps out of talking-down professor mode, be charmingly charismatic. He
has some solid ideas. He has experienced people behind him. He has a
deep bench of talented MPs.

Michael Ignatieff has everything but public support. So he should start hunting for ducks instead of chasing dreams.

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