Federal Liberals looking to play the long game

Notwithstanding the editors of the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine who expect Michael Ignatieff to become prime minister next year, the Liberal leader is more likely to spend 2010 in opposition.

Notwithstanding the editors of the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine who expect Michael Ignatieff to become prime minister next year, the Liberal leader is more likely to spend 2010 in opposition.

This is not an early prediction on the outcome of the next federal election but a reflection of the current thinking of the new team that has taken the reins of the Liberal leader’s office.

Among other changes, the makeover has brought about a fundamental shift in electoral outlook, based on the belated admission that the Liberal way back to government will have to involve playing the long game.

As a result, for the first time since the party lost power in 2006, Liberal strategists are working on a pre-election calendar that spans a year or more rather than mere weeks or months.

Meanwhile, election sabre rattling has been brought to a halt.

In Liberal backrooms, there is a general understanding that the party will do what it must in the Commons to avoid a showdown over the next Conservative budget.

The rationale for this extended calendar is twofold.

First, recasting an existing leader is more complex than introducing a new one.

Think of it as renovating a house versus building one from scratch.

In this instance, the fact that the Liberal brand name no longer resonates in some regions of the country makes it doubly hard to command the public’s attention long enough for Ignatieff to make a good second impression.

Then, there is a growing recognition that Stephen Harper has not been in power long enough for voter fatigue to set in.

The prime minister will celebrate the fourth anniversary of his original election victory next month. In Canada, it is a rare government that is kicked out of office after what amounts to the normal span of a single mandate.

The Liberals are not in sole control of the parliamentary clock and the other parties may not have an interest in giving them the year or more they feel they need to regroup.

But the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois alone cannot force an election and at least one of them actually has a vested interest in a Liberal recovery.

After losing a longtime seat to the Conservatives last month, Gilles Duceppe is not itching for an election that could see Harper unite federalists under his own flag in small-town and rural Quebec.

At the same time, this minority Parliament is closer to operating effectively than its two immediate predecessors ever were.

This fall, the NDP has broken out of the rhetorical mould that had seen it oppose the Conservatives on every confidence vote. The government, for its part, has suspended its practice of treating pet bills as confidence matters.

The opposition critique of the government has more resonance when it is not obscured by election speculation.

But the prime minister and his cabinet also benefit from spending less face time in the partisan trenches.

There may come a time when Harper tries to force the opposition’s election hand by engineering his own defeat in the House.

But it will not be in his interest to do so for as long as he cannot break through the glass ceiling that has been keeping the Conservatives in minority territory in voting intentions.

In spite of its incredibly difficult beginnings, the 40th minority Parliament may yet set a longevity record.

Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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