Barring a total climb-down by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on all of his major priorities, the Liberal Party will oppose the Conservative government’s budget, Michael Ignatieff says, greatly increasing the likelihood of an election call in February or March.
“I have low expectations that there will be anything in the budget” that his party can support, the Liberal Leader declared on Thursday in a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail, “because I think the differences in political philosophy are very clear.”
On one issue, especially, the Liberals and Conservatives seem irreconcilably opposed: corporate tax cuts.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is adamant that the Conservative government will continue with its multi-year plan to reduce corporate taxes in an effort to make the Canadian economy more competitive.
But Mr. Ignatieff was emphatic that his party opposes those cuts.
“It is imprudent in the extreme to borrow $6-billion to give large, already powerful, corporations a tax break when you’re running a $56-billion deficit,” he said. “It is a fundamental disagreement on the economic policy of our country.”
Mr. Ignatieff added that he couldn’t see how Liberals could vote for a budget that authorizes the purchase of F-35 stealth fighters, saying that the contract for the jets should be put out to public tender.
And he said the budget would need to offer meaningful assistance to families caring for someone at home, to which the Conservatives have not committed.
“The cleavages are becoming sharper and more and more clear,” said Mr. Ignatieff.
This clear signal from the Liberal Leader that his party is ready and willing to fight an election over the budget evokes memories of August, 2009, when a combative Mr. Ignatieff vowed to bring down the government.
In that case, the Conservatives were rescued by the NDP and Mr. Ignatieff’s popularity plunged to levels from which it still hasn’t recovered.
But this declaration will force NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe to ask themselves whether and on what grounds they might be willing to prop up a minority Conservative government that is well into its third year.
Still, Mr. Ignatieff’s stand remains a bold one, for his party would go into that election trailing the Conservatives in most polls and with the leader personally unpopular. One recent survey had 46 per cent of Liberal supporters saying Mr. Ignatieff should step down.
Those polls are meaningless, Mr. Ignatieff responded, because most people aren’t paying attention to federal politics.
“I think I am connecting with the voters who are paying attention,” said Mr. Ignatieff. The situation is far better than it looks, he insisted. “The party believes in itself, believes in its message, the organization is good.”
More important, he maintained, the Liberal Party remains the most legitimate party of the centre, which is where most voters are. “The Conservatives only win when they pretend to be a liberal party. They have to defang themselves.”
Most Canadians still believe in public health care, help with post-secondary tuition, a meaningful pension plan and the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he maintained.
“The Liberal appeal is: we’re the people who put that granite under your feet,” he said. “The message is as persuasive now as it ever was – in fact, more so, because that middle class is under a lot of pressure.”
But for the past three elections, more of those middle-class electors have turned to the Conservatives than to the Liberals. Mr. Ignatieff can only hope that once a campaign is under way, they will be open to changing their minds.
The Liberal Leader is ready to find out sooner rather than later.