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Lawrence Martin

The Grit game plan: Let Ignatieff be himself Add to ...

The hot political issue has become standards. As in, our falling standards.

Years and years of low-road politics from both parties - one-man rule, guttersnipe tactics, scandals - have downgraded democracy to the point where the people, in high dudgeon, aren't going to let politicians get away with it any more - even if some in the media continue to excuse their behaviour on the intellectually lame basis that, since it's gone on in the past, it's okay now.

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It's that mindset that's contributed to the malaise. Over the years, abuse of democracy became so rampant that the media, deadened by the drumbeat, came to accept it. There was a lack of outrage. Finally, the people have stepped into the void to demand a higher ethic. The question is: Will the politicians follow?

On the face of it, this creates a splendid opportunity for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. A patrician, his natural habitat is loftier plains, not the political cesspool. If the Liberals can frame the debate as the high road versus the low, they may be on to something. In such a circumstance, the nobleman will take out the Doberman.

The Grits have been on the uptick of late, not because of anything the Count of Cambridge has done but because of the Conservatives' self-inflicted ethical wounds. Coinciding with the government's suspension of Parliament, however, came a key decision in the Liberals' head office. They stopped trying to turn their leader into a conventional politician and decided to let him be himself.

The notion was that you don't run from your roots. Mr. Ignatieff went on a university tour. What better for a professorial type who's spent a large part of his life in the college surroundings of Cambridge, England, and Cambridge, Mass.? The universities, allegedly at least, are conducive to idealism, to fresh and forward thinking, to higher standards.

The Facebook anti-prorogation campaign, now 220,000 strong, was started by a grad student from the University of Alberta. The Liberals are intent on furthering the outreach to the younger generations, a potential gold mine that was tapped by the Democrats in the U.S. presidential campaign but, amazingly, has yet to be tapped by any party in Canada.

The prime focus of the Grits' game plan, however, is to address the needs of what they call "the sandwich generation" - the big middle class being squeezed by job security and retirement savings anxieties. Mr. Ignatieff's advisers argue that the Conservatives are caught up in short-term fixes - tax rebates, handouts and the like - that do nothing to address the longer-term problem.

In the past month, the Liberals have put some policies in the window, but the plan is not to go with anything major until after a policy conference in Montreal in March. There, with a bevy of specialists brought in from hither and yon, they will try to sell the notion that this is a party capable of something rather unique in federal politics - new thinking.

Though the Liberal brain trust foresees no election until the fall, that could change if the unlikely were to occur and they moved considerably ahead of the Tories in the polls.

Surprisingly, the Grit game plan does not include the formulation of a far-reaching reform blueprint to reduce the powers of the Prime Minister's Office. The party realizes this has become a top-drawer issue, but Mr. Ignatieff's advisers are not convinced they need commit themselves to an overhaul of the way Ottawa works. It's not so much about changing the rules, said one. Rather, it's about having a PM who plays by the rules already there.

This may be a mistake. Canadians have seen half measures on the democratic deficit from Liberal governments in the past and from today's government in the form of its watered-down Accountability Act. They want something more this time.

Stephen Harper's repeated seizing of the political low ground has created an appetite for change, not tinkering. That appetite has reached down to the younger generation, which may be on the verge of a political awakening. With the Conservatives disconnected from this demographic, the conditions are right for a leader whose promise when he came to Ottawa was the pursuit of something higher.

 

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