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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during a closing press conference at the party's caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept. 2, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during a closing press conference at the party's caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept. 2, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson

Liberals move to big ideas, <br/>Conservatives get more granular Add to ...

In the last couple of days, we've seen some interesting message shifting by the Liberals and the Conservatives, in different directions. Today, a few thoughts about the Liberal shift.

Emerging from his caucus retreat in Sudbury, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff did himself some good by starting to elevate the argument in favour of an election, and elaborate on the case for voting Liberal.

Shifting from the narrow, unpromising idea of loosening EI rules, Mr. Ignatieff spoke of the need to replace a small-minded, petty government with one that had a more expansive, optimistic vision of the country.

He signaled that he wanted to help lead Canada through the economic transition it needs to prosper in the long term, and that he would eliminate the galloping fiscal problem, without increasing taxes. While there is little doubt he will need to and want to add some flesh to these bones, these bones are far sturdier, as a starting point for an election most voters doubt is needed.

In this peculiar time in our political life, Mr. Ignatieff will have to pursue this new, more promising case in two concurrent streams. He must kindle more frustration with the incumbents, and also create more confidence that he can deliver on these lofty goals. While Mr. Harper would surely want more people to love his government, his greatest asset today lies in the fact that few hate it.

To replace an incumbent government in bad economic times is not always a Herculean task. But the big challenge for Mr. Ignatieff now is that many feel the economy has bottomed out, and less than one in three are personally frightened. Only a few dozen weeks ago, people were accustomed to hearing that this was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Today, more Canadians feel what's happened is a relatively mild contraction. So building a desire for change becomes more difficult, even if no less necessary, from a political standpoint.

Selling hope, on the other hand, almost always means playing to a bigger market. In bad times or good, people want to believe things can get better, and would like to believe their political leaders can help.

Canadians do sense, as Mr. Ignatieff commented, that our economy of the future will need to be different from that of the past. Many voters might also sense that the Conservatives' political philosophy will be somewhat laissez faire, maybe too much so for their tastes. So a lot of swing voters will welcome the idea that the Liberal Party wants to govern to help stimulate and shape Canada's next generation economy, and within responsible fiscal parameters.

Mr. Ignatieff's challenge will then be to explain with more powerful conviction, and some compelling details, how he will make this happen. If he's up to this challenge, his prospects have brightened already.

Tomorrow, a few thoughts on the Conservative shift from "stability" to "home renovation."

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