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Liberal MP Ralph Goodale speaks to reporters following the Liberal's caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal Liberals may enjoy watching Conservatives accuse New Democrats of favouring a carbon tax but the third party in the Commons has not been immune this week to government attack messaging – specifically accusations that it stands for nothing.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper brushed off Liberal questions in the House of Commons by saying: "The one difference between the NDP and the Liberal Party is at least the NDP brings bad ideas to this debate, whereas the Liberals bring none."

And on Tuesday, he said: "The NDP, while I disagree with its policies, has put a few of those things - carbon tax, protectionism - on the table. The Liberal Party says, 'look at us, we're not either of them.' That is not a policy. People expect to have some idea why the Liberal party still exists down there."

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It is a criticism that seems to have struck a nerve.

Ralph Goodale, the Deputy Liberal Leader, told reporters on Wednesday after his party's morning caucus meeting that Conservative policies are leading to greater inequality and "Mr. Harper's answer is glib, complacent, political shots that are cold comfort to Canadians who really need to know that the government is on their side."

Behind the scenes, Liberal strategists said their MPs should respond to Mr. Harper's accusations by comparing him to Mitt Romney, the U.S. Republican presidential candidate who was caught saying 47 per cent of all Americans "believe they are victims" entitled to help from the government. Liberal politicians were urged to say, in reply to the Prime Minister, that Mr. Harper is similarly interested in targetting only certain voters "but the fact that more than 60 per cent of Canadians would never vote for the Conservatives doesn't mean those doesn't mean they don't exist."

In fact, Mr. Harper was not in the Commons during the daily Question Period on Wednesday so he could not continue his line of attack. And the Liberals could not return the volley.

But Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, still adhered to the path recommended by the strategist. "The Prime Minister once said that providing for the poor is not a federal responsibility," Mr. Leblanc said in his opening question. "He does not think it is his job to help those people. The Prime Minister was clearly having a Mitt Romney moment."

The Liberals, who have endured a prolonged period of upheaval within their party, are about to launch into a protracted contest to elect a fourth leader in sixth years. That does not include interim Leader Bob Rae whose absence from the Commons this week, the first days of the fall sitting, has not gone unnoticed.

Policy is not easy to develop without strong guidance from the top and eager foot soldiers on the ground who are keen to feed ideas to the centre. At this juncture, the Liberals must be more concerned about the large numbers of moribund riding associations and their chances of attracting strong and charismatic candidates to the leadership race than putting together a platform for an election that is still three years away.

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The party website offers much criticism of the Harper government but not many solid proposals that can be used to attract voters.

Still, Mr. Goodale says criticism that Liberals are not offering new proposals is unfair.

Just this week, he told reporters, a Liberal colleague said in the Commons that tax credits should be made refundable so they can benefit lower income people. Liberals, said Mr. Goodale, have said Conservative increases to payroll taxes should be put on hold, have offered ideas about making post-secondary education more affordable, have suggested specific job creation measures for young people in places where the unemployment rate is 15 per cent, and have proposed better public-financing arrangements for co-operative housing.

"We focussed on very specific measures aimed at this issue of inequality in our economy," said Mr. Goodale, "and we will continue to do that to make it clear that there is an agenda that this government could follow completely within the confines of the rules of fiscal responsibility."

- With files from Daniel Leblanc

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