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Protestors dressed as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff pretend to sleep during a climate-change demonstration in Vancouver on Sept. 21, 2009. (ANDY CLARK)
Protestors dressed as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff pretend to sleep during a climate-change demonstration in Vancouver on Sept. 21, 2009. (ANDY CLARK)

Jeffrey Simpson

Tired rhetoric, and not much more Add to ...

Strip away the rhetoric from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's recent speeches and two conclusions emerge.

First, there isn't much to them. Second, most of what there is does not differ markedly from what Stephen Harper's Conservative government is doing.

Again, rhetoric aside, a convergence between the two parties is noticeable, as the Conservatives become big-spending middle-of-the-roaders and learn more about foreign policy, and the Liberals seem incapable or unwilling to present anything terribly arresting.

Both parties agree, for example, on how to eliminate the federal deficit - slowly and largely by counting on economic growth to spare them from making too many hard decisions. They are obviously content to let debt pile up because they fear being honest with voters that without tax increases and spending cuts, the debt burden will be passed on to their children. Both have ruled out increasing taxes on individuals, businesses and spending. Both insist they will protect Ottawa's massive transfers to provinces. Neither dares touch big federal transfers to individuals, such as pensions. Neither has mentioned slowing down the increase in defence spending.

What do these exemptions leave? It's simple mathematics: cuts to other government programs.

But which ones? Neither party will say, fearing political controversy. All the Liberals argue is that if they must cut, their cuts will be more compassionate.

That's rhetoric, of course. So is the old scam of arguing that nothing specific can be said or promised until the "books" have been audited after an election. The federal budget is itself scrutinized by the parliamentary budget officer and post facto by the auditor-general. The documents are there for all to see.

The Liberals say they want to enhance the country's productivity and competitiveness. So do the Conservatives. Both promise to invest more in research and development. Both talk about bringing jobs to remote areas, which is much easier pledged than fulfilled.

The Liberals have traditionally been more eager to invest public money in companies, regional development and infrastructure. But has anyone followed the bouncing ball of prime ministerial announcements since the budget unveiled the "Economic Action Plan"? Every week, and sometimes three or four times a week, the Harperites announce another investment in companies, regional development (they've even created an agency for Southern Ontario!) and infrastructure.

Mr. Ignatieff grouses that the federal money hasn't been spent fast enough, but short of Mr. Harper literally dumping cash from wheelbarrows during his various announcements, it's hard to see how the money could have been dispersed much faster. In other words, when a party doesn't fundamentally disagree with a policy, it complains about implementation and timing, which is what the Liberals are doing - and not very credibly.

Economics meets foreign policy when Mr. Ignatieff castigates the government for neglecting China and India. It would have been fair criticism a while ago, but it's not valid any more, what with a gaggle of Conservative ministers having recently been to China, and Mr. Harper slated to visit both China and India in November or early December.

As for the rest of the Liberals' foreign-policy critique, it is astonishingly thin for a party led by a man who lived so long abroad and visited so many other countries, including failed and failing states. Framing a foreign policy based on that experience ought to have been an Ignatieff high card; instead, his speech last week revealed something much lower down the deck.

A secretariat for the G20. A peace institute. These sound good, but are really quite silly. The return of Team Canada missions? Harmless. A new approach to India and China? See above. Complaints that Mr. Harper's government hasn't worked hard enough against U.S. protectionism are simply wrong. On Afghanistan and the Arctic, the Liberal policy is essentially the government's policy.

The one area of true disagreement comes in the Liberal promise to go to bat for Canadians facing death sentences abroad, or languishing without charge in foreign jails. That's a fair point for debate, but it hardly constitutes a different foreign policy, writ large.

The rhetoric infecting these speeches suggests wide differences and new ideas. Strip the rhetoric away, and the differences narrow and the search for interesting new ideas shrivels.

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