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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers a speech at his party's summer caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept 1, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers a speech at his party's summer caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept 1, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson

The case for pressing on Add to ...

Yesterday, I raised questions Liberals might want to mull before they push the plunger on this Parliament and ignite another election. Today, the questions that drive the opposite case, for not flinching in their resolve to go to the polls now.

First, while surveys show people don't want an election, is there really any evidence of unpopular election timing becoming a ballot issue? Once the battle is engaged, isn't it overwhelmingly clear that voters make their choices on other criteria?

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Second, the hobbled economy and the fiscal hole remain points of significant, if lessening, vulnerability for the Conservatives. The Bank of Canada has declared the recession over, and rapid recovery imminent. If Liberals want to make a meal out of the economic challenges on the Conservative watch, won't they need to get at that right away?

Having suggested yesterday that Michael Ignatieff could use time to continue to sharpen his personal communications style, he's already a quantum improvement over his predecessor in that department. On Friday, to my ears, he tweaked his message in two productive ways.

First, he essentially called his opponent cold, divisive, right wing, brutal and base, without sounding like a crazed partisan. He did it with sentences articulating the difference between a party that unites and one that divides, defining his Liberals as a compassionate, moderate party of the centre, a party that appeals to the best in people, not the worst.

He also attached his broad theme of "we can do better" to a simmering contemporary concern: health security in the face of the spreading HN1 virus. More of this blending of high level themes with practical, granular issues and ideas will serve him well.

The tyranny of campaigns is such that weaknesses, including those of communications thematics and style, are either solved quickly or become much worse. With Mr. Ignatieff's intelligence and facility with language, isn't it a better than even bet that he will go from good to better, and quickly?

But the biggest consideration may be the tendency of opposition parties to be overly fearful of the campaign superiority of their incumbent opponents. There's something about sitting outside of power that makes you nervous about the vaunted Big Red Machines or Big Blue Machines that you are up against. Most of the time, these labels are more about smoke than fire.

Looking back at the last three elections, the Liberals could conclude that they were outgunned 2 out of 3 times, almost 3 out of 3. They could focus on the fundraising, database and grassroots advantages the Conservatives enjoy and assume they are overmatched still. But isn't there another way to look at the last three elections?

Couldn't the case be made that in 2004, Mr. Harper lost an election he might have won with a more powerful finish against a very weakened Liberal Party. In 2006 the stage was arguably set for a landslide Conservative win, but again, the Conservatives fell short of their potential. And last year, a Conservative majority was again within reach, but not achieved. During the last election, Stephen Harper struggled when on the defensive, his personal reputation suffered serious erosion, a problem he exacerbated during the December political crisis. He's had a stable summer, but doesn't it seem that every time a consensus starts to form that the Prime Minister is modulating his style, something happens to put the lie to that theory?

Finally, the Conservative message of the need for continued heavy government spending seems ill fitting, their theme of not stalling progress in the fight against crime may seem a bit tired for many voters, and drawing an aggressive line in the sand for Quebec nationalists even before the writ is dropped just seems like an odd thing to do.

Bottom line, isn't it true that most Canadians have had a chance to see the Harper Conservatives in action, and few are passionately happy with the government they are getting, or excited about the agenda on offer. That only the Conservative core would likely dispute whether Canada "can do better." And that people don't yet know Mr. Ignatieff, and still don't love Mr. Harper.

Maybe no time looks perfect, no win will ever look assured and now is as good a time as any to have it out.

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