Patterns in politics are obviously more revealing than isolated actions. When Michael Ignatieff decided last week to throw Liberal support behind harmonizing provincial sales taxes in B.C. and Ontario with the federal GST, it was merely an interesting event. Combine that risky political move with yesterday’s proposal from Ignatieff on pension reform, however, and you’ve got the beginnings of something that deserves closer attention.
Both moves come straight out of the play book of the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin government. The harmonized sales tax gambit was the core Liberal response, back then, to anti-GST sentiment—a combination of sharing the political blame and entrenching the undeniable benefits of value-added taxes. (Interesting thumbs-up for Ignatieff on the tax move here.) Pension reform, especially shoring up the Canada Pension Plan in 1997, was a signal, though underrated, government achievement of the Chrétien-Martin period.
So now Ignatieff, struggling to take on policy ballast to lend stability to his unsteady tenure to date as Liberal leader, has apparently found his way to a potentially rich source of credibility. His two recent decisions—the first a big political gamble, the second much less so—do not amount to a clear trend. But it’s worth noting: if he’s beginning to anchor himself in the stolid economic-management style of his party’s recent past, Ignatieff might just be onto something.
A third move would be needed to make the pattern convincing. Tactically, it should come early next year—long enough before budget day to establish a clear alternative to whatever Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables, but not so far in advance as to offer him a chance to steal it.