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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff: leftward, ho! (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff: leftward, ho! (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lawrence Martin

Michael Ignatieff is tacking left - finally Add to ...

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Impugned for not offering a clear alternative to the Harper Conservatives, Mr. Ignatieff is finally starting to define his politics. He once wavered on most of the aforementioned policies. Now, he stakes out terrain.

Liberals from the old Jean Chrétien school feel Mr. Ignatieff has been pitching the party too close to Conservative country. But his chief of staff, Peter Donolo, an old Chrétien hand, appears to be making his presence felt. There's a leftward tilt in Iggy's moves.

This follows a warning by pollster Allan Gregg. His research suggests the Liberals have lost ground because they no longer are seen to represent values that resonate with the broad sweep of Canadians.

Frank Graves of Ekos Research, in agreement with the analysis, has told the Grits that the wedge politics of the Conservatives provide them with an opportunity to stake out a stark alternative. Stop worrying about the West, he's told them. No need to fear polarizing the debate. It's what worked for Mr. Chrétien against Preston Manning and Stockwell Day.

In his advice, Mr. Graves could hardly have been more blunt. "I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don't like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin."

The Grits haven't told him whether they favour this approach or not. But they are keen on projecting a more activist agenda for the party.

Until recently, Mr. Ignatieff was colouring himself in too many shades of grey, trying to be all things to all people. The Paul Martin Liberals tried this. It didn't work.

The leader's firm stance on the gun registry will force some dissenting MPs from rural ridings to vote the party line. The anti-gun position will have appeal in Ontario and Quebec, while driving traditional Westerners up the wall. Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz flipped out when he heard it, saying Iggy should be beaten black and blue for taking such a stance. He subsequently apologized for the remark.

In his first year as leader, Mr. Ignatieff made warm noises about his ties to the West and his wish to build party support there. But his numbers remained at rock bottom on the Prairies and he probably realizes there is no use trying to curry favour.

Many in the party hope he will take a firmer stance on the polluting tar sands, an issue on which he's also wavered. With measures in the last budget such as one removing environmental reviews from the purview of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the Tories are increasingly taking a laissez-faire approach to carbon emitters, leaving the door open for an alternative.

In contrast to the Liberals, Stephen Harper has been able to define what his party is all about. The Conservative base, says Mr. Graves, is remarkably unified and committed. "It isn't fiscal conservatism which sustains this true-believer status. It is a sense of moral mission and rightness." Canadian progressives, on the other hand, are scattered and demoralized, their torpor a product of having no sense of ringing purpose. It is odd, very odd, when across the border an example of a winning progressive way stares right at them.

But it may be that Michael Ignatieff, who has been feeling his way and faltering as a result, is finding his compass. He is still halting in too many big policy areas, but the recent clarity marks an improvement.

It isn't complicated. The choice between Harper Conservatism and progressive Liberalism is amply clear. Thus far, Mr. Harper has done a better job of articulating his brand than the Liberals have done of theirs. He knows how to fight a culture war. They've barely been trying.

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