Politics

Ignatieff calls for Liberals to 'reconnect'

Michael Ignatieff says the Liberals must "reconnect to Canadians" over the summer and show them his party can offer a better alternative to the Conservatives.

Canadians need to 'see what we have to offer,' Liberal leader says

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff waves to visitors at the Parliament Buildings on Tuesday as he prepares to begin his summer bus tour of Canada. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Michael Ignatieff says the Liberals must "reconnect to Canadians" over the summer and show them his party can offer a better alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"We've got to take politics from here and out to the barbecue, to the back door, to the deck of the cottage — that's where it's got to be," Ignatieff told reporters as he boarded the "Liberal Express" bus in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon to embark on a summer-long tour of every province and territory.

"We've got to reconnect to Canadians. That's why we're doing it."

The tour comes amid dismal poll numbers for the Liberals and Ignatieff's own leadership approval rating following a punishing spring session in which Ignatieff had to deny rumours of a potential merger with the NDP.

As rain poured on the steps of Parliament Hill, Ignatieff joined about 100 Liberal MPs and supporters under red and white umbrellas for a midday tour launch rally.

"We don't care about this Conservative weather, do we?" Ignatieff quipped.

In an interview earlier in the day, Ignatieff said he will use the tour to give Canadians a "clear sense" of the "fiscally responsible, socially progressive, compassionate alternative" a Liberal government would provide.

"You know, it’s when that election buzzer sounds that the choices will start to get made," he told CBC News. 

The Liberal leader also dismissed polls that suggest many Canadians perceive the author and former academic as arrogant.

"When people meet me, they discover someone who loves this country, likes listening," he said. "I think that’s the key. I’m a guy who likes to listen. I’ve been a teacher half of my life and I know you can’t teach well unless you listen. You can’t lead unless you listen."

'Sulphur' remark slammed

Jean Chrétien's 1993 summer bus tour proved a great success for the Liberals, if measured by that fall's election, in which the party won a massive majority government.

However, political observers say Ignatieff's 2010 bus trip might not move his poll numbers much and also comes with risks, such as gaffes by the leader or, even worse, no one showing up.

Ignatieff already generated controversy over the weekend at the Calgary Stampede when he was quoted seeming to compare Harper to the devil, saying Canadians "can smell the whiff of sulphur coming off this guy."

Conservative MP Laurie Hawn called the remark "childish," saying on Twitter that Ignatieff "can't even insult without blow-back."

"[Does] Iggy even believe in the devil?" Hawn wrote.

Harper's main spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, said the comment reflected more on Ignatieff.

"Canadians expect substance and he clearly doesn't have any," Soudas told the National Post.

On Tuesday, Ignatieff downplayed his "sulphur" comment.

"Oh, c'mon, Evan, I was having a little fun here," Ignatieff later said in an interview from St. Albert, Ont., on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon. "This is about competing visions of Canada. Don't take it too seriously."

When asked to comment on Ignatieff's remark, his press secretary, Michael O'Shaughnessy, said the leader was referring to the smell of rotten eggs.

"It is quite evident when one faces the Conservative government on a daily basis," O'Shaughnessy wrote Tuesday in an email to CBC News. "Secrecy, dirty tricks in committees, sole source contracting, the smearing of officials, the bully tactics, the broken promises (elections, accountability, Senate) etc."

Despite potential gaffes, pollster Nik Nanos says the summer tour is a risk the Liberals have to take.

"I think the Liberals have no choice but to do something because if there is a campaign in the fall, you never know what could happen," Nanos told CBC News. "They have to be ready."

Liberals admit the tour is a bit of a test run for a future election campaign, but they also say it's about letting Canadians get to know Ignatieff better.

Pollster and communications adviser Bruce Anderson said the summer tour could be a defining moment for Ignatieff — good or bad — as the Liberal leader only has so many chances to press the reset button.

"It really is a question of whether or not every time Mr. Ignatieff bounds onto the stage, he oozes energy, delights and charms his audience and leaves them with a clear understanding of why he'd be a better prime minister than Stephen Harper," he said.

Ignatieff's tour later ran into trouble just outside the town of Hawkesbury, about 100 kilometres east of Ottawa, when his bus broke down. Liberal staffers had to come pick up Ignatieff, his entourage and accompanying media in separate vehicles to take them to his next event.

Ignatieff shrugged off the mechanical problem.