Ignatieff slams Harper for 'failure to unite Canada'

Michael Ignatieff took direct aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, attacking his track record on national unity, as he accepted the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, unopposed, at a convention in Vancouver on Saturday.
Michael Ignatieff at the Liberal party convention in Vancouver on Saturday. ((CBC))
Michael Ignatieff took direct aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, attacking his track record on national unity, as he accepted the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, unopposed, at a convention in Vancouver on Saturday.

"I want to speak directly to Stephen Harper," he told a crowd of about 3,000 cheering Liberals.

"For three years you have played province against province, group against group, region against region and individual against individual. When your power was threatened last November, you unleashed a national unity crisis and you saved yourself only by sending Parliament home.   

"Mr. Harper, you don't understand Canada … that a prime minister is there to unite a country, not divide it…. You are failing to do your duty," he said.

"Mr. Harper you have failed us. If you can't unite Canadians, if you can't appeal to the best in all of us, we can…. We Liberals can build a federation based on co-operation, not on confrontation."

Ignatieff said he believes Canadians "feel a longing for change that replaces spite and spin for civility and common purpose."

Interim leader since taking over from Stéphane Dion in December, Ignatieff was the only candidate on the ballot at the convention.

97% of delegates endorse Ignatieff

He garnered 97 per cent of the vote after he was formally nominated for the position by former leadership rival Bob Rae, seconded by Dominic LeBlanc.

"I will give this job everything I've got," Ignatieff said. "We meet in Vancouver as a great united party … in the shared belief that our time has come.

"In opposition, we are fighting to protect you, and in government we will lead you back to prosperity," he said.

In his televised address, he appealed to all Canadians: "If you're watching tonight and haven't joined a political party, come on in and we'll give you a great welcome," Ignatieff said.

"I need you. Canada needs you also."

Ignatieff touched broadly on policy issues — including calling for a national standard of eligibility for employment insurance, early learning and child care, equal pay for work of equal value, protecting funding for scientific research, "world-class" education for aboriginal children, as well as ensuring every other child with sufficient grades also has access to such education.

A key strategy for Canada to emerge from the economic downturn is lifelong learning because it fosters innovation that will help to create future jobs in a knowledge-based economy, he said.

"A strategy for recovery must be a strategy for learning. We must create a society where learning is a way of life and learning is lifelong," Ignatieff said.

"If you ask what I want for Canada, it is this: That we surprise ourselves, astonish ourselves, that we astonish the world."

A video tribute shown before Ignatieff took the stage featured photos of him with President Barack Obama, which elicited thunderous applause.

1-member, 1-vote policy

Just hours before Ignatieff's speech, the party voted to adopt a new policy that will make such delegated conventions history.

The policy — called "one-member, one-vote" — means the next time the Liberals choose a leader, every member of the party will get to vote on the matter, not just delegates and party officials.

Ignatieff and key members of his caucus had argued it would make the process more democratic.

The idea is that giving everyone a direct say on party leadership would help to draw more people into the party at a time when membership is down.

The policy brings the party into line with the other national political parties, which also select their leaders that way.

Delegate conventions were often full of drama, hoopla and intrigue, such as the one in 2006 that elected Dion. The convention was split between Ignatieff and Rae, with Dion coming up the middle for a surprise win, thanks to manoeuvring and deal-making by delegates.

Sendoff for Dion

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty (centre) looks on as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shakes hands with former leader Stephane Dion following a tribute at the official opening ceremonies at the Liberal Leadership Convention in Vancouver on Friday. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
The party gave Dion a sendoff Friday night.

A video tribute focused on his two-year reign as leader, his work on the Clarity Act aimed at shaping talks on Quebec sovereignty and his contributions to environmental issues — without mentioning his controversial Green Shift carbon-tax proposals.

Dion led the party to one of its worst-ever electoral showings last October and his carbon tax plan was blamed for some of the losses.

In a 40-minute farewell speech, Dion told delegates the best going-away gift he could imagine would be a Liberal win in the next election.

Leadership rivals stepped aside

The promise of a dramatic Liberal leadership race was short-circuited last December when Dion stepped down after a parliamentary crisis. Ignatieff's rivals stepped aside to make it easier for the party to rebuild.

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien addressed delegates Friday in a 30-minute speech. He said Harper, the Conservative prime minister, is a leader who has gone missing on the international stage.

He also accused Harper of bungling the economic crisis and taking credit for Liberal policies that he used to trash while in opposition.

"I thought Stephen Harper was supposed to be tough on crime.  Well, he should be charged for stealing our record," Chrétien said.

While the convention has been showcasing Ignatieff, delegates have been focusing on the less glamorous work of fixing an ailing party machine.

Ignatieff told delegates Friday it's time to foster grassroots support. "I want to create a party where that sense of contact with the ground is there," he said.

"You know the challenge that we face. It's a number you all know and it's the most disturbing number we have to turn around," Ignatieff said, referring to the 800,000 supporters who did not vote in the October general election.

Despite recent polls in their favour, Liberals meeting in Vancouver say it will take more than just talk to build the party into a competitive force once again.

Rocco Rossi, a big name in fundraising and the party's new national director, says changes already made by the party are paying off. Fundraising has doubled from last year, he says.

However, Liberals acknowledge that the Conservatives are still way ahead in both voter databases and electronic fundraising.