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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, June 15, 2010. (NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, June 15, 2010. (NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Michael Warren

Try Michael Ignatieff, anti-politician Add to ...

What first attracted me to Michael Ignatieff during the 2006 Liberal leadership race was his tendency to put ideas ahead of partisan politics. Somewhat like Pierre Trudeau, he was politically irreverent. An anti-politician.

He stood for a strengthened and sustainable economy, an equal "spine of citizenship" for all, unity as a people, and a strong place in the world for Canada, and he supported each of these policy themes with some exciting ideas that are still relevant today. He also advocated an income-neutral carbon tax as the most effective way to reduce our dependency on carbon-based energy.

But several key things have blurred Mr. Ignatieff's leadership agenda. One, the recession, has had the greatest impact, completely changing the fiscal landscape and prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to introduce a budget that co-opted many of Mr. Ignatieff's economic recovery ideas.

His core ideas, however, are not the problem. The greatest drag on his popularity is his inability to connect with Canadians.

Mr. Ignatieff can be charming, articulate, curious and self-effacing. But it's often on an intellectual level. When he tries to reach Canadians on a visceral level - to win their hearts and minds - he has trouble engaging his audience. He can come across as patrician and distant, that he's somehow holding back his authentic self.

Mr. Harper has problems of his own in this regard. But he compensates with political shrewdness, an uncompromising toughness, and an all-consuming drive for the power and control that comes with a majority government.

The response by Mr. Ignatieff's handlers has been to try to transform him into something he's not - a traditional politician. Ditch any potentially unpopular ideas. Try to embarrass the government at every turn. Withhold the inconvenient truth about a whole range of issues. Play it safe. Hope that the Harper government defeats itself.

But there's another strategy, one that aligns more closely with Mr. Ignatieff's character. Let him become the anti-politician he really is. Since he isn't very good at federal politics the way it's being played, change the game. Being an anti-politician would mean telling the truth and treating the electorate like mature grown-ups. A risky idea, perhaps, but Mr. Ignatieff has little to lose.

He would tell Canadians we need to do more than delay a corporate tax cut if we hope to manage down our massive federal deficit while maintaining our social safety nets. Further taxes are inevitable.

Then there's the environment. The Conservatives aren't even meeting their modest goal of reducing our 2006 emissions levels by 20 per cent by 2020. And the Liberals' cap-and-trade policy won't be enough to change our pollution behaviour. Mr. Ignatieff, the anti-politician, would renew the fight for a revenue-neutral "environmental refund," knowing that it's needed for Canada to reach minimal international standards. Tax us on what we burn, not on what we earn.

He would sound the alarm on our unsustainable health-care system, and would champion the creative federal/provincial reforms necessary to deliver greater value for our health dollars.

There are many other truths and consequences that conventional politicians avoid sharing with us. They think that we can't handle the truth. Therein lies a Hail Mary opportunity for Mr. Ignatieff. As he tours the country this summer trying to reinvent himself, maybe he ought to do what suits his temperament: Trust in the common sense of Canadians and their willingness to make sacrifices for their country.

A little more passion wouldn't hurt, either.

Michael Warren, a former Ontario deputy minister, chief general manager of the TTC and CEO of Canada Post, is CEO of The Warren Group.

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