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Adam Radwanski

Ignatieff's Ottawa problem Add to ...

It's a fascinating debate and all, whether or not Michael Ignatieff's inner circle is too Toronto-centric. Too bad it misses the point entirely when it comes to what's gone wrong for the Liberal leader.

The problem for Ignatieff and his advisers is not that they're from Toronto. It's that, literally or figuratively, they're spending way too much time in Ottawa.

(Note: This does not apply to the Denis Coderre fiasco, which is a whole different matter. But the Liberals have bigger problems than that, and the last thing the world needs is any more ink - virtual or otherwise - devoted to Denis Coderre.)

One of the pleasures of being around Queen's Park, as I've mentioned previously, is that once you get a couple of blocks from here you're back into normal society. Most of its denizens - from ministers to staffers to journalists - spend a good chunk of their free time with people whose lives do not revolve around politics. As a result, they should be able to maintain a hint of perspective on what those people are concerned about.

It's extraordinarily difficult to achieve the same thing in Ottawa, which is very much a company town. You eat, drink and (in some cases) sleep with people who live and breathe politics as much as you do. And it seems rather obvious that the Liberals - even, for some reason, those who don't spend every minute in that town - are way too concerned with what people there think.

In fairness, this is not just a Liberal problem. The degree of breathlessness in much of the media's coverage of recent events suggests that it's not even restricted to partisans. But it's taking a bigger toll on Ignatieff & Co. than most anyone else.

Inside the political class, it's somehow become an article of faith that being tough means being in a perpetual state of crazed election-mongering, and being open to compromise makes you inherently weak or gutless. The favourite game in Ottawa of late - the only game, some weeks - seems to be calculating who looks "tough" and who looks "weak" after each round of posturing.

Normal people don't think this way. Nor are they sitting there with score-cards, charting the tough/weak axis. And you can bet that when it comes time to cast their ballots in the next election, their decisions will have precious little to do with past decisions about whether or not to support the government following some trumped-up dispute they only vaguely remember.

This point seems to have been rather lost on the Liberals. And so Ignatieff has seemingly been driven for most of this year by a crippling fear of being seen as "weak," which in turn nearly led to him going into an election campaign this fall from a position of legitimate weakness.

Worse, it's held back the Liberals from making a case to Canadians about something they might actually care about, like what they would do differently from the current government, and what tangible impact that would have on people's lives. And to the extent that anyone is paying attention, it's slowly converting Ignatieff's image from that of a promising intellectual to a strutting blowhard.

I've tried not to make too much of Ignatieff's time out of the country, because that discussion was horribly cheapened earlier this year. But it's fair to ask, at a certain point, whether he's suffering from a legitimate lack of exposure to Canadians outside political circles. Having been more or less swept up by an ambitious group of strategists and organizers immediately upon his return here, one gets the impression he's had way too many conversations with them and not nearly enough with anyone else.

Sure, Ignatieff may need to broaden his inner circle, and bring in some A-list talent. But it won't matter if they're not from Toronto, if they're just creatures of Ottawa.

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