What a curious summer it has been for the Liberal Party and its leader, Michael Ignatieff.
Summer, it should be said, is a tough time for an opposition leader to command much, if any, media attention. Deprived of a parliamentary platform, whatever he says seldom echoes across the country.
Still, the leader has to try to be heard, have something to say, and stir up at least his troops. On all these counts, it's been a curiously wasted summer.
When the parliamentary session ended, Mr. Ignatieff did not bring down the government. Instead, he huffed and puffed, and secured a study into employment insurance.
For this, the Ottawa media pack devoured him for delivering at the end of the shenanigans what the people wanted: no election. Such is the media mentality that judges everything by who wins and loses little tactical struggles, and reads significance into picayune events.
The Liberals were not then ready for an election, and the people did not want one. On both counts, Mr. Ignatieff rather skillfully avoided the bad option of an election urged on him by a surprising number of Liberals.
The avoidance of an election yielded Mr. Ignatieff valuable time that it would appear has been largely wasted. He has popped up occasionally in the media, but for the most part Mr. Ignatieff disappeared for the summer, while the Prime Minister was in the news almost all the time. Several months were squandered in trying to get Canadians to know Mr. Ignatieff better so that Liberals can counter that Conservative lethal jibe that their leader is "just visiting" Canada.
Bad staff work, the leader's leisurely pace, flat polling numbers and, more critically, the failure to develop a coherent critique of the government and set of alternative policies, have left a disturbing number of Liberals privately wondering what the hell is going on.
Liberals will put a good face on things, of course, at their end-of-summer caucus the week after next in Sudbury, but it will be just that, a face. They thought in the spring that the political tides were slowly running in their favour; now they are not so sure.
The Liberals' biggest challenge (they have many) lies in having failed this summer or before to develop a "line," or an easily digestible overall critique of the government. It's a crude game, politics, and an opposition party to win needs one word or one phrase that sticks in the public's mind about the government - time for a change, corrupt, incompetent, uncaring, the tool of big business. Whatever. It's not at all clear what that word or phrase is that the Liberals have hung around the Conservatives' neck.
Suggested changes to employment insurance, making it easier to secure EI with fewer weeks worked, certainly isn't an overall "critique." Most people in Canada are working, and don't worry much about EI. But even if the Liberals were substantively correct about the issue, and they are not, one policy dispute does not make a coherent line of attack.
Some days, the Liberals claim the Harper government hasn't spent enough public money on the recession. But they voted for the Harper budget, whose deficit has since exploded. Would the Liberals really recommend a budgetary deficit above the anticipated one of $50-billion? Where would that leave their other critique that the Conservatives have been reckless with the public purse?
On other days, the Liberals suggest the stimulus money should be rolled out ever faster. This is a purely political critique, rather than a seriously substantive one, since it takes time to make sure money is well spent. As it is, a whole lot of the stimulus money will be spent next year and the one after that, when the economy won't need the public money.
The economic centrists in the Liberal caucus know that taxes should be raised in the next few years to drive down the deficit and avoid years of red ink. But they dare not say so, because they fear the Conservative counterattack. So they say nothing. Indeed, so seared were Liberals by the bad public reaction to their carbon tax in the last election that they won't put anything forward before the election.
Mr. Ignatieff is going off to China, a good thing in itself, but wrong from a timing perspective. The Liberals thought they had the Conservatives somewhat vulnerable for mishandling relations with China, but with four senior Conservative ministers having recently visited that country, the potential critique has weakened.
Elections are won at home, on domestic issues overwhelmingly. If there's one area where Mr. Ignatieff doesn't have to burnish his credentials, it's having an international perspective, because he lived overseas for so many years. He'd be much better off attending barbecues in Ontario and Quebec than visiting Beijing and Shanghai. Get elected and go fast to China, but get elected first.
Stephen Harper had scarcely been outside Canada before getting elected. Canadians think they are great internationalists, but they are not at all.