In the coded language of official Ottawa, they are known as SO31s. It’s a reference to Standing Order 31 of Parliament, which allows that 15 minutes be set aside before question period each day for MPs to stand in the House and make brief remarks about a subject of their choosing. For the most part, members use the time to salute constituents, celebrate charitable causes, mourn sad occasions or pontificate on matters of national or international importance.
When they still had Stéphane Dion to kick around, the Conservative government took great pleasure in mocking the former Liberal leader before he rose to ask another awkwardly worded question of the Prime Minister. And though they waited a few days before doing likewise with Dion’s successor, a steady succession of Conservative backbenchers has been sent up to denigrate Michael Ignatieff or his party since he took the leader’s chair. Indeed, despite an attempt recently by the Speaker to limit personal attacks during this time, government MPs have used more than 100 of these statements to needle the Liberal side in the 12 weeks since Parliament returned in January—a concerted campaign that reached a particular low when Ron Cannan rose on the afternoon of April 20 and attempted to segue from a preceding statement of condolence by Liberal Maurizio Bevilacqua about the deadly Italian earthquake.
“Mr. Speaker, I too add my condolences to the folks in Italy. Our prayers and thoughts go out to all those folks in Italy,” Cannan said. “But there is an earthquake happening in our own country. I would like to remind Canadians what the Liberal leader said on April 14, just last week, and I quote, ‘We will have to raise taxes.’ ” A day later, the Conservative MP stood in the House, apologized for his remarks and asked that “this incident not be exploited further as it would only serve to prolong the pain of those who have lost loved ones.”
By such standards, the launch last week of a new Conservative advertising campaign—unveiled at an off-the-record briefing conducted by two of the Prime Minister’s spokesmen, though both claimed to be on one-day leaves from their government duties—was relatively genteel. But via television and the Internet, the Conservatives intend to make the myriad questions about Ignatieff’s capabilities and history difficult to ignore. And so where those SO31s might be dismissed as mere parliamentary brinksmanship, Michael Ignatieff now faces a legitimate test of his and his party’s ability to control his image.
“The line is: he’s just visiting. That’s the tag line that the guys want to focus on,” says Tim Powers, a political strategist who has worked with the Conservatives in the past. “That his arrogance and his aloofness portray an interest in self and not in nation. And I think the contrast is, whether you like the Prime Minister or not, when you compare him to Iggy, you do at least know he’s interested in Canada, he’s spent his whole life working to improve public policy here and Ignatieff is about Ignatieff. I think that sort of self-interest and non-Canadian-like behaviour is something that needs to be gotten at a little bit, as a set-up for the legitimate, heavy contrast that will come if and when Iggy ever comes out with a policy.”
Stephen Harper’s side was, of course, wildly successful in defining Stéphane Dion. By the time last fall’s election was through, his middle name might as well have been “Not A Leader.” While Dion tried to claim the high road, his lack of a suitable response is now generally viewed as the beginning of his end. The Liberals insist this time around will go differently. That the economic situation will take precedence. That Ignatieff is not Dion (a point even the Conservatives concede). That Canadians already have an idea about who Ignatieff is and what he stands for. And that the party will take “whatever steps are necessary” in response.
Hours after reporters were briefed on the coming bombardment, Ignatieff made a first attempt at returning fire. “On a day when we have got record bankruptcies, we have got unemployment skyrocketing, all this government can think of doing is running attack ads on me,” he told reporters. “This is the old style of politics. We are in the middle of a serious economic crisis. This government needs to grow up and do its job properly.” A day later, he broadened his counterattack at a speech in Toronto, taking specific aim at the suggestion that his time outside Canada says something about his commitment to the country. “Like many Canadians, I’ve seen our country from the outside. As a writer, as a teacher, as a war reporter, I’ve seen Canada from afar. And when you see Canada from afar—when you see our unity and our purpose and our strength—you see a country that is proud of its diversity, that is strong and united in its diversity, that is an inspiration to the whole world,” he said. “Stephen Harper doesn’t understand that.”
Having spoken in lofty tones about unity when he officially accepted the Liberal leadership this month, Ignatieff has, for the moment, a convenient display of aggression with which to contrast himself. But then this is still a fight on Harper’s terms. “Certainly I’ve heard from certain friends that don’t like the ads. They think that they are a little unfriendly in a manner they don’t take comfort from because they sort of question his alleged Canadianness,” Powers says. “But when they tell me they’re upset, that means they’re actually thinking about it too. I think the ads force people to think a lot about who Michael Ignatieff is.” Jill Fairbrother, Ignatieff’s press secretary, concedes the ability of attack ads to commandeer the discussion: “The more time you spend talking about attack ads, the less time you spend talking about the government and what they are doing or not doing.”
And so the onus remains with the Liberals. Fairbrother says they’ll use the Internet to counter the Conservative campaign. Television ads may follow, though the Liberals vow they will refrain from personally attacking the Prime Minister. “I think for their own internal purposes they have to be seen as responding,” Powers says. “Part of the thing with these ads is they are partisan reinforcement vehicles. So if Ignatieff wants to signal to his party that he is not Dion and that he is standing firm and strong and wants to reinforce his own message, then they need to do something.”
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