OTTAWA — Michael Ignatieff stoked the Liberal campaign machine with some fiery rhetoric Tuesday, even as he insisted he’s not out to provoke a federal election.
Unleashing an uncharacteristic stemwinder to rally his troops, the Liberal leader laid the groundwork for an election he hopes will boil down to a stark choice between the Grits and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Tories.
As Ignatieff told it, it will be a choice between a strong team and a one-man show, between a leader who listens and one who imposes his ideology, between a leader who inspires hope and one who traffics in fear, between a leader who wants to invest in family care, education and retirement security and a prime minister who’d rather spend billions on prisons, stealth fighter jets and corporate tax cuts.
His tub-thumping performance came during a Liberal caucus retreat, held ostensibly to plot strategy for Monday’s resumption of Parliament but aimed more at preparing for a possible election that could be triggered over the federal budget, expected in March.
Ignatieff left little doubt Liberals will vote against the budget, putting the onus on the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to determine whether Harper’s minority government lives or dies. While he made no apologies for Liberals propping up the government in the past, Ignatieff signalled those morale-sapping days are over.
“We’re not seeking an election, we’re not seeking to provoke an election,” he said.
“But we are not the guarantor of the future of the Conservative government. We are here to oppose this government and we’re to here to replace it.”
His protestations to the contrary, the caucus retreat resembled a campaign college, attended not just by MPs and senators but by candidates, party organizers and campaign strategists.
Although Liberals are hovering slightly below 30 per cent and as much as 10 points behind the Tories in most opinion polls, participants were cheered by the analysis of party pollster Michael Marzolini.
According to insiders, Marzolini told the retreat that current horse race numbers aren’t relevant because few voters are actually paying attention to federal politics. However, among those “informed voters” who are paying attention, Marzolini said he’s found the Liberals are actually running slightly ahead of the Tories — which portends well once a campaign gets under way and voters start to focus on their choices.
Moreover, insiders said Marzolini advised that Liberals have finally found a potentially winning message in targeting the Harper government’s allegedly out-of-touch priorities. Canadians, he said, are not sold on the need for more prisons, tax breaks for large corporations or fighter jets.
Party officials assured the troops that the campaign machine is ready to go — platform done, plane rented, financing lined up, TV ads in the bank.
“We’re ready in every respect,” party president Alf Apps said later in an interview.
“Most importantly, I think the party’s heart is in the right place, the message has come together, people are feeling a sense of, I’ll call it, spiritual readiness. . .So I would say heart, mind and nuts and bolts, we’re ready.”
In his speech, Ignatieff portrayed Harper as an out-of-touch, one-man show who listens to no one and plays on Canadians’ fears to push his dogmatic agenda. He said the real Harper was inadvertently revealed in a supposedly feel-good TV ad released by the Tories last week.
The ad shows a solitary prime minister mounting the stairs to his Parliament Hill office, burning the midnight oil at his desk while a narrator intones that Canada is in “safe hands.”
“There’s this kind of lonely guy, alone, working late at night . . . hasn’t got any friends, doesn’t get out much,” Ignatieff mocked.
“I felt kind of sorry for him, really.”
By contrast, Ignatieff cast himself as the leader of a strong team that has spent the past year listening to the real concerns of hard-pressed middle class families and developing a platform that responds to their priorities. He boasted that he spent the summer criss-crossing the country and the fall holding 20 “Open Mike” townhall meetings.
“Skill testing question for all of you: How many open mike townhalls has Stephen Harper held in five years?
“I’ll tell you what the answer is: Zippo. Zero. None. Nada. Nothing. . . It’s the difference between leaders.”
Ignatieff also set out to counter some of the charges levelled in the latest spate of Tory attack ads, in particular the charge that he would raise the GST and other taxes on the middle class.
“We are not going to increase the tax burden on the Canadian family. It’s not going to happen. Don’t believe what they tell you.”
The Tories have accused Ignatieff of planning to raise taxes on “job-creators” — a charge Ignatieff happily accepted. He said a Liberal government would indeed roll back tax cuts for large corporations, saving some $6 billion that would be ploughed into education, child care, family care and pension security.
“If you want a big public argument about what is likely to create more jobs for Canadians, I will bet on education over corporate tax cuts any day of the week.”
Sara McIntyre, a spokeswoman for Harper, said Tuesday’s performance showed that “once again, Michael Ignatieff is talking about and pushing for an unnecessary and opportunistic election.
“Our government continues to be focused on the economy, including creating jobs and economic growth and keeping taxes low.”