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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff returns to the House of Commons after speaking to reporters in the wake of the minority Conservative government's budget motion passing with the support of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois on Sept. 18, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff returns to the House of Commons after speaking to reporters in the wake of the minority Conservative government's budget motion passing with the support of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois on Sept. 18, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Lysiane Gagnon

The Liberals get a reprieve - for now Add to ...

It is Michael Ignatieff, not Stephen Harper, who has been "saved" by Jack Layton. Instead of berating the NDP for propping up the government during the weeks to come - thus postponing an election until next spring - the Liberals should be grateful for having been rescued from a battle they were in danger of losing.

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Not only was the Liberal Party clearly not ready for an election, this time the Harper government had a real chance of obtaining a majority. The Conservatives are only 12 seats away from a majority, and all recent surveys showed them much ahead of the Liberals.

Of course, voters were angry at the Liberals for raising the prospect of an unnecessary election. But Mr. Harper has manoeuvred well these past few months. His government has positioned itself centre-right. Canada has sailed through an economic crisis that devastated most other developed countries. The government is delivering goodies - public works, EI reform, home-renovation programs. At long last, Mr. Harper is taking a more mature look at foreign policy by reigniting, for instance, relations with China. With an electorate increasingly fed up with minority governments, Mr. Harper was poised to make gains, enough maybe to reach a majority.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ignatieff still hasn't delivered on the promise of a renewed Liberal Party. While Mr. Harper spent the summer at work, Mr. Ignatieff vanished from the radar for most of the time. His speeches in Parliament are often lame, as were the first TV ads featuring him in a bucolic setting. His image is still blurred. He still looks like a visiting professor, unable to explain in concrete terms what exactly he would do to make Canada better, apart from high-speed rail between Quebec City and Windsor - a tired idea to be sure.

In the week when the opposition was supposed to overthrow the government, Mr. Ignatieff unveiled a foreign policy platform - not exactly the kind of thing that generates excitement around kitchen tables. Those few who paid attention must have been puzzled to hear Mr. Ignatieff complain the country has stopped engaging in "muscular internationalism," when Canada has been taking on the riskiest tasks in Afghanistan.

The Liberal foreign policy plan was a rehash of previous Liberal policies, from Lester Pearson's peacekeeping efforts to Jean Chrétien's trade missions in Asia and Paul Martin's push to replace the G8 with the G20. And why a new "secretariat of peace, order and good governance," a duplication of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre?

In Quebec, the Liberals are almost invisible. And the ridings the Conservatives might lose will go to the Bloc Québécois because they are all located in homogenously francophone areas. So far, Mr. Ignatieff hasn't managed to attract a single high-profile French-Canadian candidate.

Even in Outremont, one of the rare ridings that the Liberals should count on - it's now held by Thomas Mulcair, the lone NDP MP in Quebec - there still is no Liberal candidate and the riding association is divided. Denis Coderre, the MP who is Mr. Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant, reportedly wants Nathalie Le Prohon, an Ontario-born former businesswoman who had a successful career but is a rookie in politics, over Martin Cauchon, the former MP for Outremont and justice minister who is said to be interested in returning to politics. Mr. Cauchon's supporters have asked Mr. Ignatieff to overturn Mr. Coderre's decision.

Some Liberals privately mutter that Mr. Coderre is excluding anyone who could eventually become a credible candidate for the leadership. Next time indeed, it will be the turn of a francophone - and both Mr. Coderre and Mr. Cauchon have leadership ambitions. Such is the state of the Liberal Party in Quebec that leadership hopefuls are already considering the post-Ignatieff period.

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