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The Globe and Mail

Ignatieff's absence apt as Tories strut their stuff

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff gives a year-end interview at his Stornoway residence in Ottawa on Dec. 16, 2010.


Back in the summer, when the long-form census was burning, RCMP senior staff were rebelling, Omar Khadr was languishing, and the head of CSIS was alleging Manchurian candidates were everywhere, a prominent Conservative sighed that some days it felt as though the government was reduced to reacting to events rather than controlling them.

Those days are fading. This first week of January proved the Conservatives are firmly on top of the political agenda. Under the circumstances, it's just as well there was no sign of Michael Ignatieff.

Consider this bit of evidence: The Tories may or may not truly believe they can take seats in the Greater Toronto Area from the Liberals in the next election. But the national media believe it, and that's more important. Pundits universally agreed that Tuesday's petite cabinet shuffle, elevating Peter Kent to Environment Minister and putting Julian Fantino in the seniors portfolio, proved that the Conservatives are on the warpath in the 905.

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This reasoning, which could wildly inflate the Tories' real prospects in the region, nonetheless puts the Liberals on the defensive by making them look vulnerable. The Grits aren't really dominant anywhere in the country other than Toronto and environs. If those walls fall, then what's left?

The Liberals indignantly reply that those walls won't fall, that it's the Conservatives who should be worried about swing seats the Liberals will be taking from them in Southern Ontario. But right now, the argument doesn't sound convincing. It isn't so much a question of polls; it's more intangible than that. In August the Liberals had a bounce in their step. These days, it's the Conservatives who whistle as they walk.

Mr. Ignatieff is on holidays, and no one should blame him for taking some time off. He'll be back out on the road next week, his handlers say. It wasn't necessary he be around; his shadow cabinet is stacked with talent.

But finance critic Scott Brison will get little ink when he rails against Tory fiscal waste and incompetence Friday morning. The Conservatives have entrenched the idea in voters' minds that they successfully managed the recession and have the deficit under control. The Liberals will not defeat the Conservatives on the question of who best will manage the economy, no matter what Mr. Brison says.

To win, the Liberals have to move voters' minds off the economy, the way they succeeded a year ago this month in making people angry at the government for proroguing Parliament. That was another time - from prorogation through detainee documents to the Helena Guergis affair - when the Conservatives reacted more than acted.

Right now, though, they own the story. It's just as well that Michael Ignatieff is not around. There's not much he could say.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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