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Lawrence Martin

Grit game plan: Goodbye, high road Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff was in high dudgeon, incensed at a Conservative-backed website alleging that his father wasn't the poor immigrant the Liberal Leader has made him out to be. Mr. Ignatieff interpreted the Tory spot as an attack on his family, beyond the bounds of decency. In fact, it wasn't that bad. By Conservative standards, it was rather middling.

In response to the story, online posts at The Globe and Mail shot quickly into the thousands, most of them siding with Mr. Ignatieff. It was an indication of how integrity is replacing the economy as the issue uppermost in voters' minds. If this is true - and an opinion poll published Monday showed as much - it's happy news for the Liberal Leader. The abuse-of-power issue is his best hope. It's probably his only hope.

Mr. Ignatieff can't rely on his own program. The Liberal policy platform, most of which is already out, suffers from a poverty of ambition. There's little to capture the public imagination. What can capture it, however, is the steaming heap of manure piling up on Stephen Harper's doorstep, courtesy of ethical chaos, quasi-scandals and an affinity for the moral low ground.

With this in mind, what the Liberals are planning is essentially an all-out assault on the Prime Minister, one that beats him at his own attack game, the one he's been winning for years. The Grit strategy, in so many words, is to hell with the high road.

To wit, the Liberals have finally released an attack ad that's worthy of the name. It goes directly at Mr. Harper's moral character. The Prime Minister acts like he's above the law, the ad says. Then with obvious reference to his order that the government be labelled in his own name, it ends with: "Is this your Canada? Or Harper's Canada?"

This type of approach - giving the Prime Minister some of his own medicine - is what the Liberals should have done years ago. It may be too late now. Another poll published Monday showed that, despite all the recent controversies, the Conservatives still score higher than the Liberals on trust and integrity. Mr. Ignatieff wasn't even here for the sponsorship scandal, but the memory of it obviously lingers.

Some in the Liberal caucus, sensing they need more time to let the Tory manure pile grow, are saying privately they want Mr. Ignatieff to hold off for a couple of months before forcing an election. They're probably right in thinking there's more trouble on the way for their opponents.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Harper called in the RCMP to look into the activities of Bruce Carson, one of his former confidants. Mr. Carson is accused of using the access he had to senior members of the Harper government to sell filtration systems to first nations. Last month, four senior Conservatives - including Senators Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein - were charged with willfully exceeding spending limits in the 2006 election campaign. Several cabinet ministers have been caught up in ethical transgressions. And others, notably the more high-minded, have left the cabinet or announced they're leaving.

What we're seeing is what happens when the man at the top is pathologically partisan. Such leaders are inevitably driven to excess in order to get their way.

The Liberals would be better positioned to take advantage of all this if they were putting forward a stronger program for reforming the system, a new democratic charter of some kind. Their platform has some good elements, but it's not far-reaching enough.

Their chances, however, are better than they were a month ago. It appeared then that the economy, though stable and not a subject of searing debate, was the issue. The Tory record is mixed on the economy, but the Liberals have little leverage on that issue.

Mr. Ignatieff would prefer the government to be defeated on a contempt-of-Parliament motion, not on Tuesday's budget. Given the Conservative salvo fired at his father, contempt, or something bordering on it, is what's now driving him.

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