Ignatieff's lousy week

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Thursday, June 18, 2009

Just as Stephen Harper was forever diminished by last November's parliamentary crisis, so Michael Ignatieff has been permanently damaged by his waffling performance this week.

On Monday, Ignatieff defined himself as the weakest Liberal leader since, well, since Stephane Dion. His laying out of four conditions for supporting tomorrow's supply motion was a disaster in every respect. It was easily the worst moment of his leadership, demonstrating that neither he nor the Liberals are ready to govern.

The Conservatives have been spending a lot of time and money on attack ads that try to define Ignatieff as a stranger in his own land. The Liberal leader drove that message home.

And the worst part was that he made the situation all about himself. In his news conference, he used the first-person pronoun more than 100 times. In a subsequent five-minute interview with Peter Mansbridge on The National, he said "I" 30 times, and threw in a couple more "I've" s along with six "me" s for good measure. There were five "I" s in one sentence in his answer to Mansbridge's final question.

("It's not as if he hasn't been told [to frame the debate as being much larger than simply me vs. Harper]," sighed one senior Liberal member of Ottawa's permanent political class.)

"I don't want an election, Canadians don't want an election," Ignatieff declared Monday. And then he said he would force one unless Harper met his four conditions on Employment Insurance reform, expediting infrastructure funding, capping the deficit and guaranteeing a sufficient supply of isotopes for cancer patients. Parliament, he said, could even sit into next week to debate the EI threshold.

Then, he practically implored Harper to take him off the hook.

"If he wants to discuss and clarify these matters," Ignatieff told his news conference, "he knows my phone number. He knows where to reach me. I'm just one floor up, you know."

But Ignatieff completely neglected to follow up during Monday's Question Period. The whole performance, somewhere between Hamlet and Dion, was a dithering mess.

So Harper called his own news conference and declared his willingness to talk.

This is the part of the game of politics -- tactics -- that Harper loves. Sometimes he is all tactics and no strategy, as he was last November, when he badly overplayed his hand. But this week, Harper has been extremely elegant and accommodating.

On Tuesday, he gave Ignatieff not one but two meetings. Moreover, Harper scheduled the first meeting away from the Centre Block, where there would have been a media feeding frenzy, and held it in the Langevin Block across the street. The Langevin is to the PMO as the Old Executive Building is to the West Wing of the White House -- the place where most PMO officials work.

Then, Harper had Iggy around for drinks at 24 Sussex Tuesday evening, again very privately, without a mob scene at the front gate and without a photo op.

It might have been the first time Ignatieff's ever seen the inside of the place. Given the kind of day he had on Monday, it might also be the last.

At a minimum, Ignatieff's weak and irresolute performance was a very bad leadership moment. Leaders don't go around asking their opponents for meetings. Leaders don't go around threatening elections in the morning, and disappearing in the afternoon. And leaders don't make it all about themselves.

One wonders where Ignatieff's office was in all this? The opposition leader's office is supposed to be the A team; what were they thinking, sending their leader out on such a fool's errand? Don't they understand that a leader's credibility is his equity? Welcome to the majors, boys. Watch out for the high, hard ones.

As for Harper, he's had his best week in months, just by showing up.

 
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