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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks in Ottawa. (Nathan Denette/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks in Ottawa. (Nathan Denette/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Why Ignatieff needs to turn his attention to health care Add to ...

He's talking about sending more kids to university. He's talking about child care. He's talking about giving caregivers a break, and strengthening pensions, and encouraging Canadians to retrofit their homes.

What Michael Ignatieff is not talking much about is the one issue that, based on the available evidence, he should be talking about more than any other.

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Polls show that health care is competing neck-and-neck with jobs and the economy as Canadians' most pressing public-policy concern. It is enormously relevant to the decision voters will make on May 2, because negotiating a new federal-provincial transfer agreement will be among the most important responsibilities - arguably the most important responsibility - of the next government. And conveniently for the Liberal Leader, Stephen Harper's Conservatives appear to want very little to do with the issue, having spent most of their time in office avoiding it.

The Liberal platform, released on Sunday, makes a passing nod in health care's general direction. Further inside the document than most voters will venture, there's a grab-bag of promises - nudging Canadians toward healthier living, implementing a brain-health strategy, improving rural service. On the subject of the coming negotiations with the provinces, the platform pledges a "collaborative approach," with a special focus on home-care and prescription-drug access.

But with the exception of support for caregivers - which, worthwhile though it may be, is rather marginal to the country's overall health-care challenges - none of this appears to be among Mr. Ignatieff's top priorities. Instead, he's mostly playing to voters' pocketbook angst, through the "family pack" at the heart of his platform.

That set of policies, and the way it's being communicated, conveys urgency and some degree of creativity. Mr. Ignatieff's health-care policy displays few signs of either.

To some extent, the Liberal Leader may be keeping health care in his back pocket for closer to the election. But at best, it seems likely to account for a day or two of his message track, not a main theme of his campaign.

In Mr. Ignatieff's absence on the file, Jack Layton is stepping into the void - running television ads devoted entirely to health care, and speaking extensively about it. "The prime minister you elect May 2 will be negotiating with the provinces and territories," the NDP Leader said Sunday. "With something as important as your family's health at stake … who do you trust to lead those discussions?"

It's a question that Mr. Ignatieff, who has a moderately better chance of being prime minister after May 2, would do well to ask - provided, of course, that he's capable of giving voters much reason to believe he's the answer.

The Liberals' reluctance to fully embrace health care likely relates to the lack of easy solutions. To seriously broach the question of long-term sustainability leads to some uncomfortable discussions about what we can really expect from the public system, which is not really the stuff of campaign sound bites.

There's also the matter of their own party's record on it. To those who pay attention to such things, Paul Martin's "fix for a generation" has turned into a bit of a punchline. And whenever Mr. Ignatieff does broach the issue of a new federal-provincial deal, Mr. Harper could reasonably point out that it was the Liberals who cut transfers in the 1990s.

But as a general rule in this country, if Liberals can't outflank their more conservative opponents on health care, they can't win elections. And considering that Mr. Harper easily bests Mr. Ignatieff on jobs and the economy, the Liberal Leader really needs to make the other pressing concern work for him.

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