Toronto-area by-election could bring bad news for Iggy

The longtime Liberal seat might go Conservative in next week's vote

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Michael Ignatieff got a free pass when Stephen Harper agreed to forego a vote on re-profiling Canada's Afghan mission from combat to training in return for the Liberals' support.

It was an elegant gesture on Harper's part, the right and honourable thing to do. Harper was passing up a chance to expose divisions in the Liberal caucus in return for a united front on a vital question of national interest.

Besides, on two previous occasions in 2006 and 2008, Ignatieff supported the mission, when it could not have been easy for him, especially in the midst of the 2006 leadership campaign. On that occasion, Harper famously crossed the floor to shake Iggy's hand.

The trade-off was negotiated over weeks by Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae in delicate talks with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. Even the U.S. ambassador David Jacobson got involved in a discussion of the new NATO timeline for withdrawal in 2014.

Yet instead of leaving the grenade by the side of the road and speeding on to safety, Ignatieff picked it up, pulled the pin and put it in his pocket. Kaboom!

At Dawson College in Montreal on Monday, Ignatieff was asked how he felt about the Bloc Quebecois or NDP using their opposition day to force a debate and a vote on the extended mission.

"We're happy to have a vote," he replied. "The other parties have an opposition day that's available to them and if they want to use that, that's fine. We've never denied a democratic debate on Afghanistan."

Beware of what you wish for, Michael.

"The Bloc were going to force the issue anyway," explains one senior Liberal in Ottawa. "He didn't really have a choice."

The Bloc will indeed use its opposition day tomorrow for a debate on Afghanistan, and the vote on their motion could come then, or early next week.

Which means the Liberals might discuss this terribly divisive issue again at this morning's caucus.

When it came up at last week's caucus, there were so many leaks they might as well have put the whole meeting up on YouTube.

The caucus, and the Liberal rank and file, have not bothered to conceal their anger at not being consulted by Iggy and Bob. This is particularly true in the Greater Toronto Area, and the Liberals are nothing if not a GTA party. And in Toronto, some Liberal MPs feel the NDP breathing down their necks on this issue.

This could prove to be a leadership moment for Ignatieff, with his members rallying behind him. If half a dozen Liberals were to break ranks in a free vote, that would be one thing. But if 20 Liberal members bolted, that would be quite another.

It's not only a test of the leader; it's a test of caucus discipline, and this, on the available evidence, is not a disciplined crowd.

The next week could prove equally challenging for Ignatieff on another front. There are three by-elections coming up next Monday, and at this point the Liberals look to be losing all three.

Never mind the two ridings in Manitoba, one staunchly Tory in rural Dauphin, and the other an NDP stronghold in Winnipeg North.

The focus next Monday will be on Vaughan, an area code 905 seat in suburban Toronto, held by the Liberals since 1988. When Maurizio Bevilacqua resigned to run successfully for mayor of Vaughan, he took his ground game with him. He might also have scores to settle with Iggy, who nixed a deal that Bevilacqua negotiated with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on a refugee bill. In any event, the Liberal organization is so weak they've been offering Senators hockey tickets and gift certificates to Hy's restaurant to the hardest-working volunteers for phone banks run from Ottawa.

Meantime, the Tories signed up former Ontario police chief Julian Fantino, who personifies a law-and-order message that plays well in the suburbs. He is also playing well in the Italian community, a traditional bastion of Liberal support. Last Friday night, nearly 800 people paid $500 each to have dinner with Fantino and Government House Leader John Baird.

Something is going on in Vaughan, and it's not good for Ignatieff, who has been to the riding four times. A loss there would be equivalent to the Liberals losing Outremont in 2007 under Stephane Dion -losing a fortress seat in the leader's hometown.

For Ignatieff's sake, he'd better hope not.

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