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A long, hot summer: Harper's pain, Ignatieff's gain

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to supporters at a Conservative rally in Montreal on Sept. 1, 2010.

The Canadian Press

Much is being made about the fact that national voting-intention, or "horserace," numbers have been tightening a bit. The fascination with weekly bounces is understandable, but those looking for consistent storylines find it frustratingly inconsistent.

Over the years, I've found it better to look at how the parties and leaders are functioning, and try to isolate the patterns that could be leading indicators, as opposed to incidents that flare up and disappear without a trace.

From what I see, there are two things going on right now that, barring reversal, could make the next year in Canadian politics quite a bit more stimulating to watch.

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Michael Ignatieff is finding his voice and rallying his party.

In contrast, Stephen Harper's government seems to be struggling to find its groove.

The Conservative challenges this summer have accumulated steadily. From apparently unchecked spending on the G8/G20 meetings, through the census train wreck, then getting roughed up on the gun registry, and facing skepticism about big-ticket spending on jails and fighter jets, it's hard to imagine the Prime Minister is happy with the way things have been going.

Since Mr. Harper has been in office, when the going got rough, there was one thing he could always count on: voters had little interest in the Liberals and less in their leader. When the Conservatives were briefly vulnerable after the party-financing fiasco, and again during the election leaders' debate about the economy, the prospect of Stéphane Dion as prime minister was what righted the Tory ship and helped them escape more serious peril.

Since Mr. Ignatieff took the reins of his party, the PM has generally enjoyed the upper hand against his rival, drawing on his longer political experience and sharper political skills. But I suspect he knows already that the pickings will not be so easy this fall, and that his government will have to strengthen its game significantly.

The first thing Mr. Ignatieff has accomplished is to prove to himself and his party that he can campaign like a pro. Get up and hit the road every morning, maintain a sense of humour and convey a sense of passion about the daily chores of listening, embracing, repeating, eating, over and over and over again. He has quelled the persistent questions about his stamina and challenged the conventional wisdom about whether he can charm a crowd of regular folks.

The second thing that catches my attention is that he is starting to draw a bead on an agenda that has larger political potential. He now talks about the economic struggle faced by many families, about the wall we will hit in our health-care system unless we concentrate on finding solutions, about whether it makes sense to spend $25-billion on prisons and planes when we have a massive deficit. These are solid mainstream issues, concerns that cut across the broad swath of centre-right to left of the Canadian spectrum.

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Finally, Mr. Ignatieff is turning phrases and choosing words with increasing skill. Gone are the awkward, political-science-bookish references to the desire to fight for the centre. Replacing them is language that is far more effectively tuned. A "big, welcoming, tolerant red tent" is a far more effective way to retail the Liberal Party's enduring preference for pragmatic centrism, as well as to draw a contrast with what of late has come across as a more cool, standoffish, "our way or the doorway" Conservatism.

Those who believe that strong competition is vital in our democratic system, and has been lacking for too long, have reason to feel its been a pretty encouraging summer.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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