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Why it's tough for Michael Ignatieff to straddle the centre

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 23, 2010.


Keeping in tune with a party's supporters can be a difficult balancing act, particularly when a leader tries to position him or herself at the centre of the Canadian political spectrum. No one knows this better than Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, as indicated by a recent Harris-Decima poll.

Asked whether the leadership of each party needs to be changed, 35 per cent of Liberal voters responded that Mr. Ignatieff should stay, with only 10 per cent saying the Liberal Party definitely did not need a new leader. That compares unfavourably to the 60 per cent support Jack Layton received for his leadership of the New Democrats, the 71 per cent backing Gilles Duceppe earned for his stewardship of the Bloc Québécois and Stephen Harper's 74 per cent support for running the Conservatives. Fully 41 per cent of Conservative voters were adamant that Mr. Harper is definitely the man for the job.

Part of the problem for Mr. Ignatieff is that his stands on certain issues can be opposed by a large proportion, if not a majority, of his party's supporters.

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While support for the deployment of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is divided in the country, it also splits Liberal voters. According to another Harris-Decima this month, only 45 per cent of Liberal voters support Mr. Ignatieff's decision to back the government's plan to maintain nearly 1,000 Canadian troops in the war-torn nation in a training role. Mr. Harper's supporters are more enthusiastic, with 55 per cent in favour of the Prime Minister's position and another 10 per cent supporting an extension of the combat mission. Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe, on the other hand, have the support of three out of five of their voters in opposition to the re-classification and extension of Canada's deployment to Afghanistan.

On the question of having any soldiers in the country at all, the NDP and Bloc leaders have even greater support for their opposition, with 75 and 88 per cent respectively. Conservative supporters are less likely to align with their leader on this issue, with 60 per cent in favour of the mission. But only 36 per cent of Liberal supporters agree with the government's commitment to have troops in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Ignatieff is not always offside with his party's supporters. According to an EKOS poll conducted in September, Mr. Ignatieff's opposition to the Conservative plan to scrap the long-form census was supported by 68 per cent of his voters, a higher proportion than the NDP and Bloc leaders had in support of their opposition. On this question, it was the Prime Minister who fell outside of his party, with only 33 per cent agreeing that the long-form was intrusive and unnecessary.

On the long-gun registry, a Harris-Decima poll from September found that both Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Duceppe had the support of 65 per cent of their voters on their commitment to save the registry from cancellation. While 58 per cent of Conservative voters agreed with Mr. Harper's attempts to scrap the registry, only 56 per cent of New Democratic voters were on the same page as Mr. Layton, who had aligned himself (but not his entire party) with the Liberals and Bloc Québécois on the issue.

The government's controversial purchase of the F-35 fighter jet also found Mr. Ignatieff agreeing with his party supporters, with fully 64 per cent of Liberal voters saying they were against the government's decision in a poll conducted by EKOS this month. But on this issue it was Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe who found the most support within their parties, with 70 per cent of Conservative voters for the purchase and 77 per cent of Bloc voters against it. However, though the Bloc has been critical of the purchasing process, the party wants to ensure Quebec gets its fair share of the related contracts and so voted with the government Tuesday to block an opposition motion against the F-35 purchase.

With Mr. Harper alone on the Canadian right and Mr. Layton ensconced on the left, it is undoubtedly far easier for them to echo the opinions of their supporters. Mr. Duceppe's base in Quebec also tends to see things the same way on many issues.

But Mr. Ignatieff has tried to create a "big tent" for his Liberal Party, which has traditionally straddled the centre. This means falling on one side or the other on many issues, which will always alienate one segment of the population. The problem for Mr. Ignatieff may be that Canadian public opinion is polarizing, making it more and more difficult for a coalition of voters from all corners of the political spectrum to come together.

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Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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