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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Incredible shrinking Ignatieff Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff is cooked. The reason is not that his party is in disarray or that he's about as popular as cold toast or that Stephen Harper is a charismatic genius. The reason is that Canada has changed, but the Liberals haven't.

At their weekend wonk-fest in Montreal, all the talk was of "national strategies" and expanded social programs. How to pay? Tax the corporations! Mr. Ignatieff serenely denied that these new social programs in education, health care and early child care would mean an expansion of government.

Yet, even as the Liberals try to square this circle, Canadians' faith in government is on the wane. Look at the results of a recent poll commissioned by the Manning Centre, a conservative think tank. It found that, over the past decade, the political centre has shifted to the centre-right. For example, while 84 per cent of respondents agree the government should play a major role in the economy, only 39 per cent think "government can be very helpful." Fifty-four per cent agree it's "better to implement small changes than all at once." Most people don't want the government to do more to reduce income inequalities, and 53 per cent say it's doing "just enough" to fight global warming. Six out of 10 support reducing taxes on corporations to stimulate economic growth.

In other words, there's no appetite for more wealth redistribution or social intervention - the great Liberal project ever since the 1960s. People are also realistic. They know their governments are deeply in the hole, and that neither corporate taxes nor the Easter Bunny are going to dig them out.

For decades, the Liberals owned the centre of the road. But now the Conservatives do. Canadians "are not overwhelmingly conservative, but it is shifting in that direction - that the private sector should be given a crack at solving issues and problems before we turn to the government," says Carleton communications professor André Turcotte, who helped conduct the poll.

None of this is a surprise. People across the Western world have shifted to the centre-right. Their governments were maxed out even before the Great Recession. The challenge is to reduce entitlements, not expand them. The alternative is to wind up like Greece.

We may not be quite as different from the U.S. as we think. That fight they've been waging over health care is essentially about the role (and inherent limitations) of government. Even if you believe that expanding health care to all is essential, you can also doubt that massively expanding the role of government will produce the best results.

People may not like Stephen Harper. But they mistrust Michael Ignatieff for some of the same reasons so many Americans mistrust Barack Obama. They're Starbucks guys in a Timbits /Dunkin' Donuts nation. They're Harvard-trained, and believe in the wisdom of elites. They believe that smart people can devise top-down solutions for complicated problems that are better than the solutions ordinary people can devise for themselves. The trouble is, fewer and fewer ordinary people believe this.

Mr. Ignatieff doesn't have a clue how to change the Liberals. He doesn't even have a clue about where to find the middle of the road. He thinks Canadians care about Afghan detainees. (They don't, although they care very much about democracy, and they don't like to see Parliament snubbed.) He seems to think Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion. (They're not. Sixty per cent, including a number of Liberal MPs, think it's morally wrong.)

Meantime, Mr. Harper is steadily shrinking the role of federal government, beneath the radar, without debate. He is quietly transforming Canada into a more private, more regional, more entrepreneurial country, with more prisons, less shared purpose, and health care that is fragmenting into many different variations. We really ought to talk about this. But Mr. Harper isn't about to bring it up. And Mr. Ignatieff has no alternative to offer.

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