While the federal Liberals gather in Montreal to think and drink their own bath water this weekend it strikes me they might want to cast their eye to Ontario and Tim Hudak's Tories to get a sense of how to do opposition effectively.
For most politicians and parties power achieved through being elected to govern is the ultimate goal. Opposition is the torture you must often endure to get there. Getting out of purgatory does not just happen through your opponents flaming out. Governments in waiting, as opposition parties are often referred to as, need to give the public some sense they are better than the bums who are getting the rush.
Albeit a slightly imperfect comparison given one opposition is in a province and the other acts in the national Parliament, looking at the differences in approach between Hudak's Tories and Ignatieff's Liberals is nonetheless worth doing.
First on branding and narrative. Federal Liberals will tell you they don't know what they stand for anymore; despite what they are trying to do in Montreal, they are still looking for an identity. The Ontario Tories recently rolled out a brand and a story. With the theme of "Ontario Can Do Better," Hudak is working to present himself as the economic antidote, of the middle class for the middle class, to a provincial opponent he portrays lost in a sea of red ink. Time will tell whether Hudak's sales pitch will work but at least he is making one.
Outreach and management of the party are other evaluative mechanisms. Hudak and Ignatieff inherited parties that were squabbling, adrift and looking horribly unprofessional. While both have brought in capable management teams it seems Hudak is ahead in terms of outcome. This past week Hudak did an electronic town-hall that connected him to 1,400 Ontarians. They had an open discussion about ideas and direction. Reports suggest it was well-received. Ignatieff on the other hand has locked himself in a hotel room, free of many of his caucus, with 300 fellow thinkers and Liberal leaders from days past. The jury is still out. Hudak's approach shows he gets the Main St connection. Ignatieff is still stumbling around Harvard Yard trying to figure out what people care about in Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
Offering options to the electorate is another factor to consider. While Canadians, or at least a few of us, watch the Liberals in Montreal search for some big ideas or the launch of the next Rubik's Cube, Hudak and his team are already offering some policy propositions. Despite being a little light on details the Ontario PC 10 for 2010 is a start.
Good opposition parties never miss the opportunity to contrast themselves with their competitors. Budget debates when the economy is the No. 1 issue for voters, and because of the public interest they generate, provide the slots to take the shots. When Dalton McGuinty rolled out his budget this week, apart from the expected criticism the Hudak Tories offered a symbolic yet important amendment to stop the severance packages for Ontario HST collectors. That payout to provincial workers who will keep their jobs has irked people on Main St. Ignatieff, on the other hand, when given the opportunity to alter the recent Harper budget choose not to do so. Equally while he pronounced he didn't like the government's economic policies, he let the government's central economic plan sail through.
Hudak has not had entirely smooth sailing in recent days. Bill Murdoch, one of his more colorful MPPs, has been stirring the urban-rural divide with his desire to see Toronto become a province. However, Ignatieff's recent cock up on the Liberal motion on maternal health that saw members of his own party defeat his initiative resulted in an anonymous Liberal MP dubbing Ignatieff the mayor "clown city," making the Murdoch mess look mild. After the metropolis of Bozo comment, the federal Opposition Leader perhaps wished he was at his provincial retreat in France where he goes on occasion to find peace.
Tim Hudak and Michael Ignatieff could both succeed in forming governments. Right now in terms of self-directed actions Hudak's approach might be enhancing his odds of success. Go west Michael. Go west and learn. You'll eventually get to Humbolt.