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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

An opposition leader has a lousy job Add to ...

The consolation will be thin gruel for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Reading and listening to the negative publicity about him and his party these days, he might remember that the leader of the opposition is almost always less popular than the prime minister.

This state of affairs has prevailed in postwar Canadian politics. Only briefly and ephemerally have opposition leaders eclipsed the popularity of the prime minister - even when the PM's own popularity was low.

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Think of Stephen Harper assembling the Canadian Alliance and Conservatives into today's party. He was far less popular in those days than the prime minister at the time, Paul Martin, who, it seemed, stood poised to win 200 or more seats.

All during Jean Chrétien's years, no opposition party leader held a candle to him. But remember when Mr. Chrétien took over the Liberal leadership and became opposition leader? He was "yesterday's man," a has-been who couldn't compete with the sparkling new female prime minister, Conservative Kim Campbell.

Even when prime minister Brian Mulroney slumped in public esteem (his party dipped once as low as 20 per cent in the opinion polls), he was always more popular than Liberal leader John Turner.

During the 16 years of Pierre Trudeau, even in the worst of times for the Liberal Party, the prime minister was more highly regarded than the leaders of the opposition, Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield.

Being leader of the opposition is a lousy job, as all who have held the post can attest. The opposition leader lacks all the tools of power, promotion and fear that a prime minister possesses to impose or induce discipline. The official opposition, by definition, has lost and, as such, has within its ranks people who carry the grudges and scars of defeat.

Defeat is usually ascribed, fairly or otherwise, to the inadequate performance of the leader, as in the case of Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, John Turner, Stéphane Dion. For a new leader, untested by national electoral combat, the party holds high hopes that usually crash against the fact that the prime minister of the day remains stubbornly more popular.

A damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma confronts the opposition leader. If he puts forward bold policies, the government will try to tear them apart; if he merely criticizes, he will be accused of lacking intellectual content.

Seldom do opposition parties win elections by virtue of what they propose, although they can be discredited by proposing nothing or by making silly promises. Opposition parties win usually because they assist in the self-destruction of a government that makes repeated errors or finds itself offside with public opinion.

The leader of the opposition, therefore, has a much more difficult balancing act than the leaders of the NDP and Bloc Québécois. Every Canadian knows that those parties will not form the government, so their leaders can be relentlessly critical while putting forward policies that aren't taken seriously because they will not be implemented.

The leader of the opposition, by contrast, has to look like a prime minister-in-waiting, with credible policies, while simultaneously being and sounding negative. Once Parliament goes out of session, the media largely lose interest in and track of the leader of the opposition, who can wander around the country almost completely unheard and unseen, except locally, whereas the prime minister is "news" wherever he goes.

For months, the prime ministerial "news" (piano playing aside) has been the distribution of billions and billions of dollars, a politician's dream. How does the leader of the opposition, who cannot distribute a cent, compete with that? And how does he compete with tens of millions of government advertising to promote this spending in an overtly partisan way?

These observations are not designed to exonerate Mr. Ignatieff from his errors of judgment, such as threatening an election the country manifestly did not want, offering speeches devoid of serious content and mishandling the contretemps of who would run in a Montreal riding.

But anyone with a historical memory longer than yesterday's newspaper or talking-head commentary would remember the travails of Mr. Ignatieff's predecessors: the internal revolts against Mr. Clark and Mr. Turner, the unwillingness of too many Liberals to accept Mr. Dion's leadership, the unwavering antipathy to Mr. Stanfield by supporters of former leader John Diefenbaker.

Those with a memory would remember, too, how hard it has been for opposition parties, without the civil service at its command, to develop sensible, fully costed alternative policies - a challenge about which Joe Clark, of all people, once wrote a master's thesis.

Today's Liberal Party has forgotten, or is afraid to promote, what it used to stand for: a strong central government, an activist state, an engaged and creative foreign policy and, more recently, balanced budgets and debt reduction.

Unless the party reconnects with what once made it compelling for so many, although repellent to others, it doesn't much matter who the leader is.

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