Michael Ignatieff emerged from a party convention this weekend with his foot slightly off the election brake.
A day after being officially confirmed as leader by his party, he used his wrap-up news conference to draw a new line in the parliamentary sand.
Unless the government agrees to more unemployment relief between now and the summer adjournment, Ignatieff is hinting he could pull his support for the minority Conservatives before July 1.
Last winter, the government agreed to submit quarterly progress reports on its economic action plan in exchange for Liberal support for the budget. The second such report is due in June and the vote on it will be a matter of confidence.
Ignatieff’s election sabre-rattling surprised some of the delegates who were heading out of Vancouver as he set out his EI demands for the media.
In his keynote speech to the convention Saturday, the Liberal leader alluded to the need to make employment insurance more accessible for the duration of the current economic downturn, but the overall gist of his address did not go the way of a spring showdown in Parliament.
Ignatieff could be preparing to wage war the better to enjoy a few more months of peace.
There is no doubt the optics of the Liberals continuing to support the government are deteriorating and he could merely be trying to improve them by wrestling a major concession out of Stephen Harper.
But if it comes to a showdown, EI is one issue on which the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois are unlikely to save the government.
The Liberals’ proposals may not go as far as their own demands but they do amount to a change all opposition parties have been calling for.
Under the scenario of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, Ignatieff would also be giving Harper the option of rushing into a summer election rather than giving the Liberals more time to shore up their organization.
The Liberal leader said he expected his platform to be finalized next month and organizers were told earlier this winter to be prepared for a campaign as early as June, but most of them feel they could use a summer to work on election readiness.
Deciding when to risk one’s first election campaign is about as close as a rookie leader can come to throwing the dice on his or her place in history.
Given the personal stakes involved in such a crucial call, it is an instance when it is not always easy to distinguish caution from dithering. In this case, though, ambition – in the larger sense of the word – might dictate patience.
Polls do show that the Liberals could win back power in a late spring election, but it is hardly a certainty and the elements of a majority government are still very much missing in action.
The next federal government, regardless of its party affiliation, will be facing challenges of a magnitude unseen since Jean Chretien juggled a referendum crisis and a crippling federal deficit in the mid-nineties.
They will include negotiating a Canadian approach to climate change among provinces with contrary interests; establishing the modalities of a military exit from Kandahar and managing an impoverished post-recession economy without plunging the country deeper in the red.
Those challenges would be more easily and more safely addressed (politically) by a majority government.
If Ignatieff wants a shot at such a government, then he might want to keep his foot on the brake for a while longer.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.