“You know, Mr. Harper doesn’t like elections,” Michael Ignatieff told a room full of Liberals in Mississauga, Ont. For the Prime Minister, he said, elections seem to be just “a kind of pesky interference in the normal course of things.” The crowd of 500 packed into the Payal Banquet Hall obligingly made disapproving noises.
“I’ll tell you why he doesn’t like elections very much,” the Liberal leader went on. “Because it’s the moment when the power returns to the people of Canada. We love elections, don’t we?” The crowd started to applaud. “We want an election!”
It was the first weeknight of the election campaign, barely 80 hours after Stephen Harper’s government fell to a non-confidence vote in the Commons. A few hours before Ignatieff spoke, Harper had promised an income-splitting plan that would allow one spouse to transfer income to another so the two could pay a lower total tax bill. “Fine and dandy,” Ignatieff allowed as he described the plan to the crowd.
“Now here’s the problem, though. He’s not gonna deliver it to the Canadian family until he’s balanced the budget. He’s not going to deliver it for five years. He’s not going to deliver it until rainwater turns to beer. He’s not going to deliver it ’til pigs fly.” The crowd was roaring with laughter now.
“What he’s actually saying to the Canadian family is, ‘Take a number and get to the back of the line!’ What he’s saying is, ‘First I’ve got to give a whole lot of giveaways to oil companies, insurance companies and banks. They’re on the top of my list. So get to the back of the line!
“‘And then I’ve got to build $13 billion worth of prisons. Instead of educating your children, I gotta lock ‘em up, okay?’ And then, if that isn’t enough, he’s gonna spend $30 billion on an untendered, uncompetitive bid for fighter jets. That is $1,000 for every man, woman and child in this country. And that is why he can’t do anything for Canadian families at all. Because you—and we—are at the back of the line. And the Liberal party is saying, ‘Let’s get this family to the front of the line! The front of the line!’” And the crowd went wild.
Of course this crowd would. A dozen candidates from the Toronto suburbs were on stage with the leader. They had brought their most faithful supporters. “Liberal leader excites Liberal room” isn’t news. But there is news on this Liberal campaign, and it has been spreading outward in concentric circles from moments like this.
First there is the leader’s manner. Ignatieff was speaking without notes or a teleprompter. He has performed off the cuff, and very well, at every stop on this campaign. It makes him look and sound more relaxed than Harper, who is good with a teleprompter but apparently can’t do without one.
Then there is the setting. The Liberal campaign leadership—campaign managers Gordon Ashworth and Pat Sorbara, chief of staff Peter Donolo—have made a study of Stéphane Dion’s 2008 campaign and made conscious choices to do things differently this time.
Dion spent much of his campaign in Liberal-held ridings, trying to hold onto them. He had not built a party organization capable of filling a room when he showed up. So he spent the beginning of the 2008 campaign sending a very strong message that Liberals were in trouble on their own turf. Ignatieff will have to play defence too before long, but his first moves have been into NDP, Bloc and Conservative ridings. Liberal advance teams have been told to compete to see who can turn out the biggest crowd. The 500 in Mississauga was actually smaller than other audiences he’s faced so far. So where his predecessor looked weak on defence, Ignatieff has projected strength on offence.
But the leader and the crowd won’t matter if the Liberals can’t craft a message that might appeal to voters who’ve spent nearly a decade staying home or voting Conservative. Here, too, Ignatieff has done some hard thinking.
His first concrete policy plank was a $1-billion-a-year program to pay $4,000 toward tuition for students planning to go to college or university. Low-income recipients would get $6,000. All of it would be tax-sheltered. No cumbersome new program would need to be set up: the delivery mechanism, Registered Education Savings Plans, already exists.
The Liberals were planning to deliver a new policy proposal every day for the rest of the week, with a full platform rollout on the weekend. “Here’s the key thing about it,” Ignatieff said about the platform at a Toronto news conference. “This electoral program of the Liberal Party of Canada will cost less—it will cost less than the Conservative program. And we will not raise taxes on ordinary Canadian families. And you know why? Because we’ve said no to corporate tax giveaways.”
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