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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters on the final day of the party's summer caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept 2, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters on the final day of the party's summer caucus retreat in Sudbury on Sept 2, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Lawrence Martin

Will Ignatieff's bid to stake out higher ground work? Add to ...

Gun-slinging Michael Ignatieff, whose Liberals have been shooting mainly blanks since Valentine's Day, thinks he has found a theme that can distinguish his party from the intermittently competent Conservatives.

"We can choose a small Canada - a diminished, mean and petty country," the leader said in his speech in Sudbury. "Or we can choose a big Canada." Big as in open, generous, inspiring - all that kind of stuff.

One thing that can be said for this. Simple messaging in politics is effective - and you can't get much simpler than big versus small. Mr. Ignatieff is an untested campaigner. But if articulated and fleshed out properly, he may have something here that can strike a chord with the voters. There are reasons why the visionless Harper government has never been able to stir much enthusiasm among Canadians. Among them is its abiding small-mindedness. It's always been a gang more interested in maiming political opponents than pursuing high ideals.

Stephen Harper has rarely shown the big side, as he did last week in appointing a New Democrat, Gary Doer, as Washington ambassador, or as he did with his residential schools apology to the native peoples. For the most part, his stewardship has been a joyless, uptight, managerial enterprise - one that leaves an opportunity for an ivory tower type to stake out higher ground.

But in a climate of economic stresses - stresses that the government has handled reasonably well since its shamefaced showing last autumn - Michael Ignatieff will need much more than lofty rhetoric to make his hurried run for the roses work.

He has to trenchantly make the case that the government is small and mean-spirited as he claims. And he has to couple that with a specific nation-building plan. The former will be the easier of the two. Recently the Prime Minister gave an extraordinary interview to a Quebec magazine in which he said that, for him, it is God's verdict that will count, more so than that of historians.

Fair enough, but does he really want to take his record of rectitude to the chapel? It was only last week that his government appealed a court verdict on boy soldier Omar Khadr, in effect standing up for the 12th-century system of justice at Guantanamo more than Canada's. It is a national embarrassment.

Mr. Harper's government is also the one that promised to breathe new democracy into the country but did the opposite, overcentralizing command in the Prime Minister's Office to a degree seldom seen. His Conservatives took attack advertising to new lows, even doing the cluster bombing between campaigns. They put out a 200-page dirty tricks handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees. They ran roughshod over the freedom of information process, even attempting to vet communications of independent officers of Parliament, the Auditor-General included. They've given us the Cadman affair, the so-called in-and-out affair, NAFTAgate, a fixed-election date that they unfixed, the use of a budget update to try to undercut opposition party financing, the attempted hamstringing of budget officer Kevin Page, gobs of patronage when they promised not to go that route.

If the Prime Minister thinks he can find a deity, any deity, who will be impressed with that show of morality, he is welcome to try. In the last election, the Liberals, wary of their own ethics record, as they should have been, declined to rip him to shreds on the subject. But Mr. Ignatieff, who isn't part of that ethically challenged Grit past, has an opportunity now. He needs not just to condemn the Harper record. If he wants a bigger Canada, he must come forward with a reform blueprint that will end the democratic blight.

His nation-building plans, like high-speed rail and a national power grid, sound nice, but can he make them economically feasible? And his embrace of a Canada with a bigger global outreach just took a hit with his cancellation of his planned trip to China.

The Conservatives can counter the small-Canada arguments by pointing to their campaign for Arctic sovereignty and their upgrading of the military. Minority government has pushed them to the political middle. They are bigger-minded than the regional right-wingers who came out of the West as the Reform Party.

Given the public's distaste for another election, there is pressure, tremendous pressure, on Mr. Ignatieff to justify one. This has to be an election that is about something - something more than political opportunism. If the Liberal leader cannot make that case, if he is the one who is seen as the power-hungry opportunist, he will pay dearly. He will be hoisted, as the old expression has it, with his own petard. It will be Iggy as Icarus.

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