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Rex Murphy Point of View
November 12, 2009
Are the Liberals in a rut? Or are they down a well?
For the last three or four weeks the polls show a consistent and fairly wide gap between Harper's Conservatives and Ignatieff's Liberals.
The very latest, which shows a ten point gap, also comes after this week's 4 by-elections - not one of which was won by a Liberal, and in which there was one surprising win in Quebec for the Tories.
The bad news polls, and the shutout in the by-elections, cap the hardest four or five weeks Michael Ignatieff has had since he stepped into the leadership last January, and made it official in May. The focus is on his leadership, and his capabilities as a leader.
And of all this, his most acute difficulty is not the gradual slide of esteem in general public opinion, but an equally gradual shift within his own party on the question of whether they have made the right choice, in him, to lead them.
An opposition party has but one strength - a united front under the unquestioned banner of a leader in whom all members of the party have rich and full confidence. Absent that, the old factions break out - witness the Denis Coderre fiasco in Quebec; rivals for the leader's job take silent encouragement; the opposing parties take every opportunity to jab and mock. Weakness at the top, or perceived weakness, sets up a chain response that feeds the very weakness being perceived.
How does Mr. Ignatieff climb out of this well?
Well he's got to present himself as more than a resume with a high IQ. Do what so far he has not done: present the case (a) for why he returned to Canada, and why he is seeking the Prime Ministership, (b) forget all the small battles and little politics, and present his core ideas and core convictions about the nature of this country and why his leadership is the necessary element in Canada, 2009 (not - let it be noted - why Stephen Harper shouldn't be Prime Minister. Why he, Michael Ignatieff, should), (c) stake out positions with the clarity of diamond on economic management during the recession,,our position on Afghanistan, what he thinks of global warming and Canada's international response to it - this includes a position on the oilsands.
The hard truth is that since Mr. Ignatieff entered on the federal scene, he's been riding on reputation and novelty. He was that rare thing - a celebrity intellectual, and his return was a 'new' story in Canadian politics.
It is up to Mr. Ignatieff to rewrite that story; to embed his presentation to the Canadian electorate in substance and vision. And to jettison the "we're-not-Harper" comfort blanket of his colleagues. Otherwise, the story of the Liberal party is on the way to re-writing itself: a replay, possibly even more humiliating, of the one under the leader who immediately preceded him.
For The National, I'm Rex Murphy.