Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has had, by most accounts I've heard, a successful summer tour. The consensus seems to be that the discipline such a tour demands has made him a more relaxed and impactful speaker, and left his audiences feeling he is a more affable and approachable person. Whether, in the aggregate, lots of voters have yet noticed shouldn't be the test of whether the tour is worthwhile or working. It has, so far anyway, unquestionably served some of its purposes.
With just over a month to go before the House resumes sitting, the Liberals also have more ammunition to work with than they did at the outset of the summer. The Conservatives have to defend the idea of spending almost $10-billion on prison upgrades and expansions, sole sourcing a multi-billion-dollar fighter-plane contract, and are also struggling to explain their census decision, the termination of an ombudsman for veterans and shuffling a respected RCMP official out of the debate about the long-gun registry. As summers go, a fairly bountiful harvest of opportunity for the Liberals.
To take full advantage of the fall session, Mr. Ignatieff needs to take his sharpened skills back onto the main stage in Ottawa, but he shouldn't stop with that. From my vantage point, he should make a concerted effort to bring his most talented caucus members to centre stage.
He has the opportunity to subtly shift the ballot question so that it is less about "Michael Ignatieff or a Conservative Government," and more about "Stephen Harper or a Liberal Government." Polling data suggests it's in his interests to do so, and the good news for him is that he has a lot of talent to work with.
When it comes to holding the government to account on economic matters, John McCallum isn't getting the job done for the Liberals. Bob Rae, Ralph Goodale and Scott Brison would all be infinitely more effective as Finance Critic, it seems to me, especially as the country is headed for what might be one of the most controversial budgets in a long time.
Beyond that most obvious case, the opportunity for the Liberal leader is to create more visibility for the wide array of talent he has.
There are familiar names with proven skills like Dominic Leblanc, Ujjal Dosanjh, Martha Hall Findlay, Mark Garneau, David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau. As with Rae, Goodale and Brison, higher profiles for these individuals would be all upside for the Liberals. Furthermore, Mr. Ignatieff could look at MP's who have not yet had much national exposure, but whose increased prominence would help burnish, broaden and freshen the Liberal brand. As I review the Liberal caucus list, there are probably two dozen such people, including folks like Bonnie Crombie, Siobhan Coady, Rob Oliphant and Mark Holland.
This tour has given the Liberal leader a chance to spend some extraordinary time with his caucus, and to get a first-hand feel for how they work and the potential they possess. Before the House resumes, he and his advisors might well want to develop a plan to realign and profile what could be seen as one of the strongest front benches in many years. In so doing, they can add a new dimension to the reputation of Mr. Ignatieff as a leader, and start building public confidence that the Liberal Party has the talent ready to take office and provide strong, competent government.