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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Liberals are failing to fan the winds of change Add to ...

Somewhere between polite and tepid would best describe the reception of about 1,000 Liberals to their leader's arrival at a fundraising dinner Monday night in Toronto.

Everyone stood, as the occasion demanded. They clapped, as the occasion demanded. And that was about it. No buzz. No craning of necks. No whooping. In short, no excitement.

In the room, as in the country, there was no anticipation that political change beckoned.

In the last U.S. election, Democrats led Republicans for a long time before the parties chose their presidential candidates. Therefore, when they did, it was an election for the Democrats to lose.

For a long time before the recent British election, the Conservatives led in every poll by varying margins. There, too, the anticipation of change permeated politics, and presumably galvanized Conservative candidates and voters to believe that this time, finally, they would win.

No such anticipation frames Canadian politics. The Conservatives are dug in with slightly more than a third of the electorate. They can't push up their support very much, no matter how much party and taxpayer money they spend; but they can't be pushed down either, and certainly not by the Liberals, the way things have been going. Neither party has figured out how to interest the majority of French-speaking Quebeckers who vote Bloc Québécois, wanting the benefits of Canada without participating in the governing of it.

Sometimes - this is what the Liberals must believe - political breakouts occur during election campaigns, and not before. Most people don't follow politics or public issues very much, if at all, and pay only a bit of attention during campaigns. Maybe then, the Liberals hope, what they are doing might pay off.

So what are they doing? Quite sensibly, but without any success, they are attempting to portray Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a divisive leader, intolerant of dissent. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff opened his speech on Monday night with this line of attack, and it's a perfectly respectable one.

Except that, Canadians, after all these years, already know this about Mr. Harper, and it hasn't eroded his support among those who admire him. If anything, it hardens his supporters, who like his decisive style and blame criticism on the "media," which Conservatives believe (against the evidence) are systematically and deeply hostile to their party.

This week, Mr. Harper held one of those prefabricated events his organizers adore: questions from young people vetted in advance by the Prime Minister's Office, then asked by Conservative shill-cum-Senator Mike Duffy. The only thing of note Mr. Harper said was to the effect that everything but the economy didn't amount to much, politically speaking.

The Prime Minister is probably right in his political assessment, which therefore leads to the question: How effective is the Liberals' attack on the government's economic performance? To which the answer, judging by these fundraising speeches and House of Commons performance, is: not very.

Mr. Ignatieff rightly praises the fiscal record of the Chrétien/Martin years, but people want to know about tomorrow, not a yesterday that fades from memory with each passing day. And anyway, retroactive political gratitude is almost an oxymoron.

He is critical of the government for running deficits and increasing the debt, which the Liberals did not criticize during the recession. He says the Conservatives let spending rip before the recession, an accurate criticism, but not one the Liberals made while the spending was being let rip.

He praises former finance minister Paul Martin for cutting taxes and lowering the debt, which is what the Conservatives did before the recession. (What Mr. Ignatieff will not touch is the foolish two-point Conservative cut in the goods and services tax, thereby conceding the issue to the Tories.)

His spending promises - to be paid for by forgoing a corporate-tax reduction - are vague and not easily located in federal jurisdiction.

As in making sure everyone with the marks can get into university or college, when class sizes are already way too large. How will he fix that?

As in helping families care for sick loved ones at home. How? Thinking about a savings plan for long-term care modelled on other forms of government-inspired savings plans would be a good place to start, except that the party isn't starting there.

In other words, it's a rather limp attack, and not one that's going to catch much attention.

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