Someone told him that “prime minister” has three
I’s in it, and he listened. Too bad nobody told
Michael that “team” and “leader” have none.

An unhappy Liberal MP

This catty dismissal by a Liberal veteran in the dark days following his leader’s worst poll numbers, about his curious habit of frequently referring to himself in his speeches, highlights a central flaw in Michael Ignatieff’s understanding of his job. Listening to the siren song of his fans in his Harvard home four years ago, he and they focused on what a great prime minister he would be. They revelled in what he might be able to achieve from that pulpit. Little attention was paid to the challenge of the intermediate step, being a successful leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and paterfamilias to the fractious Liberal family.

Many more months in opposition were probably confirmed on November 9 when the Liberals came in third in four by-elections across Canada. The good night for the Tories and the NDP probably means that the last puff of air has now escaped the early election balloon.

Opposition is a purgatory Ignatieff freely admits he hates. Now, many professionals perform unsatisfying roles admirably, even when the job is teeth-grinding, irritating and repetitive. How many lawyers, still practising law in their 50s, does one know who head for the office in the morning whistling?

The difference is that they have a lifetime of experience and can execute much of the required ritual half-asleep and hung over, and sometimes do. Michael Ignatieff had no preparation, no training and no experience at the complex craft of political leadership when he seized the offered chalice. Therein lies the central flaw in his approach to his first year as opposition Liberal leader. He had won a job he didn’t like and as the year unfolded, he demonstrated he did not know how to succeed at it. For those Liberals enraged at his taking the party to lower lows — in some polls, with some Canadians — than Stéphane Dion, this is a hidden blessing. He would leave within days if he were to suffer an election defeat.

For believers, those who have invested a great deal in his ability to return the party of government to its natural role, the news is bittersweet. They will need to keep the training wheels on for several more months, force-feed many hours of boring political homework and encourage their future prime minister to focus less on that higher chair and more on performing his day job with a smile. But there is a potential political victory for their leader yet.

The political village that is Ottawa was electrified by the announcement that Ignatieff had decided to replace his chief of staff. The village was also stunned at the ham-handed manner in which the move took place. It was one more embarrassment on the pile of execution fumbles for which both Ignatieff’s and Dion’s offices had become famous. Peter Donolo was asked to take on the role, and had wisely demanded full hiring and firing authority in return. A variety of senior Liberals and even some outsiders were aware that the deal had been done. Sadly Ian Davey, the incumbent, and Jill Fairbrother, the communications director, were not among them. Some speculation in the media read the Frenchfarce nature of the handover as a deliberate slight to Davey and his team; simple incompetence is more likely.

As the rim-shot punchline the next day, news of the change was conveyed by a Latin-text press release, instantly recognizable by writers everywhere as the “lorem ipsum” verbiage used as a universal placeholder. It was another student-council-level gaffe.

Skeptics were of the view that Donolo, who left Ottawa a decade ago, long before the Martin handover took place, was out of touch and being promoted above his pay grade. Conventional wisdom is, however, that it was an important and adroit hire, one that would not only soothe a restive caucus but also provide Ignatieff with a popular emissary to party activists, a crucial outreach tool missing since his elevation. Donolo made his name as the strategic communications guru to Jean Chrétien. Donolo doubters said excelling in that role against Preston Manning and Stockwell Day was hardly a challenge when compared with the increasingly self-confident and communications-savvy Harper PMO.

By the time he took charge in mid-November, Donolo had already done much to right the listing ship of the Office of the Leader. He made a dozen office staff walk the plank, preserving only a few of the prominent members of the previous team. More surprisingly, he quickly recruited an impressive group of seasoned party veterans including Mario Lague from Quebec, one of the most experienced Directors of Communication on any team in Ottawa; and Pat Sorbara, a smart, smooth, tough and experienced Ontario party veteran as the Chief Operating Officer. Raising the leader’s game on communications and tightening its ability to execute will do much to improve Ignatieff’s impact in the national media and in the perception of the OLO with party activists across the country.

Michael Ignatieff had no preparation, no training and no experience at the complex craft of political leadership when he seized the offered chalice. Therein lies the central flaw in his approach to his first year as opposition Liberal leader.

Some party seniors while heralding the return of “adult supervision” to the Leader’s Office were stunned that people of such seniority would be willing to put their existing jobs and lives on hold for such tough and uncertain assignments. It seems likely that Donolo’s direct line to Eddie Goldenberg and through him to Jean Chretien was a factor. People close to the former prime minister have for some months being pleading with their contemporaries to make a renewed ‘commitment to the party.’ The next challenge will be to reach out and rebuild the party’s policy muscle.

The Liberal Leader’s office had been taking on water almost since the day Donolo left. The Martin team was painfully incapable of making the transition from a leadership team to a focused PMO. Bill Graham and his chief of staff, Andy Mitchell, righted the ship briefly, running a surprisingly stable interim OLO for nearly a year. Then Dion and his gang of fools put several new holes in the boat.

By the end of the coalition fiasco and Ignatieff’s coronation in January this year, a new team had gradually been put in place. Sadly, one can only conclude that his leadership team had the same difficulty in translating a strong performance in a leadership contest into a competent leader’s office as Paul Martin had. Ian Davey, the team leader, and a large number of those he brought with him to Ottawa have paid the price of that failure.

But the querulous and sloppy performance of the OLO — mixing messages, reversing course sometimes more than once daily, failing to stroke key caucus leaders and irritating the barons of the Parliamentary Press Gallery — is a failure that must be laid at the feet of the Leader. It was Ignatieff’s decision, one presumes, to attack the Prime Minister for not going to China and then to cancel his own planned trip to Beijing the following day. It was his decision to sign the coalition agreement and then tell reporters on background that he never planned to implement it. It was presumably his choice to refuse to vote against the government 79 times and then to announce that Harper’s time was up, only to reverse himself again and slink away from his own election challenge. Perhaps one can fault Davey for not being able to prevent his leader from behaving so ineptly. But Ignatieff has demonstrated a surprising misunderstanding of the basics of political management and an unwillingness to listen. He would have been an enormous challenge to knock into more credible shape even for Davey’s father, Keith Davey. He was the rainmaker of a generation of Liberal victories, a wily and subtle manager of challenging Liberal leaders from Pearson to Trudeau to Turner.

Critics of the Leader and his performance divide into several camps, but one clear divide is those who focus on incompetent communications vs. those who say that with such thin content, even a communications genius would have failed. They are probably both right. It was the combination of a lighter than candy-floss policy message and inept execution that brought the Liberals so low, so quickly.

The party’s new Quebec lieutenant, Marc Garneau, reflecting on the dismal Liberal by-election performance, said, “Quite a few people have said to me, ‘Well, we know what you don’t like, but we want to know what it is you propose…’ I think that is a point well taken.”

How far Ignatieff has fallen from the claims of his first leadership bid is headspinning to contemplate. Three years ago he bragged about “leading from the front,” about his bold vision and about his satchel of big ideas. He fooled this observer into predicting his launch would be full of fireworks and policy innovation. He had, after all, called for a 50 percent increase in Canadian immigration, a tough carbon tax and a reopening of constitutional negotiations during that campaign. It was Ignatieff who had championed the new United Nations doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” — the still controversial notion that the international community has an obligation to tackle tyrants brutalizing their own people.

His 2006 leadership bid was marked by stumbles. The most astonishing — for someone who had had such a deep personal exposure to the most challenging international issues of his generation — was his reaction to the war in Lebanon. Asked to comment on the mounting deaths of innocent women and children, he told a Quebec TV audience that he didn’t “lose any sleep” over civilian deaths in wartime. The 2006 contest was a damp squib of a leadership battle with little attention paid by the media or Canadians, and conducted at an organizational level that would have horrified an earlier generation of Liberals.

Delegates were torn between Bob Rae’s obvious experience and appeal, and his short party history and heavy Ontario baggage. Neither were they entirely convinced by Ignatieff’s performance or his thinly veiled claim to be the political heir of the Trudeau mantle. They then made the worst choice possible and rejected each of the obvious candidates for the least likely. Stéphane Dion may not have been the worst leader in Liberal Party history, but he does not have many serious competitors for the title.

Dion’s ouster before Christmas last year was adroitly handled by Steve MacKinnon, a former party national director, Ian Davey and company. A few weeks earlier, when the Liberals’ ship had emerged from the gale of their worst electoral defeat, in votes won, the Ignatieff team ramped up their campaign among surviving caucus members. They quietly promoted the need for an early leadership contest. Ironically, the coalition fracas gave them an excuse to avoid even that nuisance. Improbably, they persuaded the caucus and the national executive that the party would be best served by simply appointing Ignatieff leader without a campaign or a membership ballot.

For a few brief weeks it appeared as if the Ignatieff team were geniuses. He appeared to capture the anxious mood of the country. His attacks on the Harper government in its period of vulnerability, in the middle of a winter of layoffs and deepening economic crisis, seemed measured and serious. One early warning sign to savvier critics, however, was the government report-card scheme. They pointed out that the government had the ability to give itself a passing grade by clever use of statistics and government spending; which is, not surprisingly, precisely what they did.

Much of the fury of the Liberal front bench at the government’s Economic Action Plan propaganda campaign is merely theatre. The Conservatives are, after all, following an old Liberal playbook. But some of the irritation is probably also a reflection of how badly outmanoeuvred they have been by Harper as a result of their naive report-card strategy.

Much of the fury of the Liberal front bench at the government’s Economic Action Plan propaganda campaign is merely theatre. The Conservatives are, after all, following an old Liberal playbook. But some of the irritation is probably also a reflection of how badly outmanoeuvred they have been by Harper as a result of their naive report-card strategy.

Less than a year later, it already seems as if the party leadership took collective leave of their senses when they decided to stage a Kremlin-style leadership selection. Why would you give up the opportunity of several months of national media attention that any properly executed race would have generated? Why would you damage your democratic credentials by using a closed-door leadership selection process, when one of your strongest cards against your enemy is his alleged anti-democratic propensity?

Some will still argue it was necessary because an election might have been called at any moment. Wrong. The government would not itself have called an election only weeks after having bent several constitutional conventions to avoid one. At the time others argued it would have been expensive and divisive to have another leadership contest. Wrong again. Leadership contests resolve factional tensions, sometimes following bloodshed, but decisively. The Chrétien-Martin guerrilla warfare between 1990 and 2002 was aberrant party behaviour in Canada, and in most democracies. Finally, Ignatieff’s lieutenants were nervous that a real leadership race would have given Bob Rae significant advantage in view of his reported strength with grassroots activists.

If that were true and Rae had been elected, the party would have been the beneficiary in choosing a tested and democratically elected leader. It is equally likely if not more so that Ignatieff would have been able to parlay his caucus and organizational strength into a real membership-endorsed victory. He would not now face whispers about his legitimacy. Avoiding the test of battle and democratic choice simply gives licence to those who would foment tensions when times get tough.

As one veteran caucus member mutters to his friends, “We traded a hapless greenie who didn’t listen, for a hopeless greenhorn who doesn’t. Some progress.”

Ignatieff’s missteps over the summer and fall mounted, and caucus mutters grew louder about their leadership choice. By the time of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner in late October, Ignatieff was joking openly about his need to return to his seat, “before Bob Rae tries to steal it.” As the Americans so amply demonstrated in the Clinton-Obama contest, internal leadership battles are crucial testing grounds. A stronger, legitimated, if bloodied, leader emerges. He or she enters the new role from a higher, more secure place in the political firmament.

Ignatieff’s stunning collapse over the late fall can be traced partly to the party’s bizarre decision, for the first time in more than half a century in Canadian politics, to deny its members the freedom to choose their leader. It is a caution to the Tories, New Democrats and the Bloc, each of whom face possible leadership changes following the next election. Party activists and engaged voters want to see lots of real leadership debates in their own communities between serious candidates, even if they are expensive and difficult to stage professionally.

The more public drumbeat of party malcontents was directed at the leader’s staff. Staff bashing is the safe harbour in every political family when it is too risky to openly challenge the leader. Yet this leader’s team, sneered at as being from “Rosedale,” the fabled Toronto home of the rich and Anglo, were free of any adult political supervision. Not much more needs to be said about the group of young eager Ignatieff acolytes than this: not one had ever played a senior role, let alone led a national leader’s office or a national political campaign. This staggering gap can be laid nowhere more fairly than at the feet of the Leader himself. He hired them.

Having watched Ignatieff arrive in London and later at Harvard, then assiduously develop and then manage relationships with older, well-connected mentors, several friends were baffled by how isolated from the barons of the party he allowed himself to become. The younger Ignatieff — as a colonial boy attempting to climb the heights of the notoriously closed and snooty British media and academic worlds — schmoozed his days and nights away with mentors as illustrious as Isaiah Berlin and Salman Rushdie, among a glittering roster of authors, media stars and politicians.

One observer reflecting on why Ignatieff seemed to have so badly missed that chance on his return to Canada offered this acute insight. He suggests that for Ignatieff at his current level and station, to have admitted his ignorance and his need of counsel to those he now considered his peers would have been too humiliating. Whatever the reason, the few dozen men and women who make up the permanent establishment of the Liberal Party and its powerful network of supporting institutions were not amused to be shut out of the Leader’s circle.

Then there was his failure to understand that politics, even in these frenzied Twitter-fed days, is still very much about substance. Sure, you have to be on message with greater discipline than ever before. Yes, the array of distribution channels for your message and the influencers who will help spread it is wider than ever. But one eternal political verity does remain: you need a compelling message.

For others of Ignatieff’s former circle this was perhaps the most puzzling gap in his performance. Here was a man who had made his career in popularizing complex and sometimes quite radical policy ideas, now offering TV sound bites that would embarrass Dan Quayle. As a public intellectual a decade earlier, he would have sneered at his own fiercely delivered, rabidly partisan critiques.

He argued, in private, the importance of not offering any policy target for the government to either steal or attack. At the same time he gave rambling, distracted interviews to correspondents from the New Yorker and the Guardian, irritating Canadian reporters and guaranteeing that they would give the more jejune bits of his reflections ample repetition to Canadian readers.

This transformation from innovative, clear-headed — if somewhat politically naive — internationally respected intellectual to strident, glaring, partisan automaton was not what the Liberal Party thought it had signed on for. Increasingly, a series of polls revealed Ignatieff didn’t appeal to a clear majority of Canadians, either. By November, Harper was beating Ignatieff two to one in the leadership stakes; even Jack Layton was 10 points higher than the impatient prime minister in waiting.

Internally, Ignatieff’s form and style of leadership was little more successful. He bungled caucus critic assignments in the spring, offending several party elders with his choices. When he tried to tweak some of them during the fall session, his position was so weakened that several MPs told him to go to hell, and threatened to go public with their resistance if he pushed. His spat with the Chrétien forces and with his Quebec lieutenant Denis Coderre was as bad a self-inflicted wound as has been seen in Canadian politics for many years. The Globe and Mail headline, “Running Quebec, from Toronto,” made a very bad day for Ignatieff.

The sad spiral that was to play out in the fall, ending with the party’s humiliation in a series of by-elections, was already becoming clear to some insiders by the time the House rose for the summer break. Having begun the year saying the government was “on probation,” hinting broadly that it would end soon, he consistently refused to challenge the government on confidence votes in the House. Threatening Armageddon in June over employment insurance changes, he set himself up for his bluff to be called by the government come fall.

His supporters claimed that he campaigned just as vigorously as any opposition leader over the summer. That was not the impression his team generated. They were accused of allowing a leader to threaten to push the country into a fall election, only to then take a summer-long siesta. Suffice it to say, however hard Team Ignatieff may have felt they were working this summer, their efforts did not make much impact with average Canadians struggling to survive a brutal recession. Responding to the Tory accusation that he was “just visiting” Canada, Ignatieff’s team allowed him to go to deliver the Isaiah Berlin Lecture in London, where he had his picture taken in a tux.

Ignatieff’s stunning collapse over the late fall can be traced partly to the party’s bizarre decision, for the first time in more than half a century in Canadian politics, to deny its members  the freedom to choose their leader.

A signal that Ignatieff did not understand the basics of caucus and party management was his performance at the Sudbury caucus meeting, a crucial launch pad for what was to have been the campaign kickoff in the fall. He had asked several of the regional caucus leaders to sample opinion on election timing over the summer and to report to him in private. Only a couple got that opportunity before their leader made public his decision to bring down the government.

If he had listened, he would have heard their unanimous view: “Not now! Canadians are not ready. We need a better case.” Instead he taunted the Prime Minister, “Your time is up!”

It is a testament to the discipline of several senior Liberals, on party unity and on support for their beleaguered leader, that they publicly backed the Leader’s war cry — even if they were emailing concerned friends that they thought the strategy was suicidal. But their sense of exclusion and irrelevance reminded some of their experience only a year before with a similarly maladroit leader. By their collective return to Ottawa a few days later there was unease on the Liberal front and back benches once again.

Ignatieff then raised the temperature of partisan attack in the House on stimulus spending, H1N1 flu preparations and a variety of daily changing priorities. The inconsistency made the Tory benches increasingly dismissive and self-confident. The swoon in a series of national polls, putting the Tories on the cusp of majority government territory, increased the grumbling. The by-election defeats raised the anxiety level further. Treacherous talk was predicted by the time of the round of Liberal caucus Christmas parties, often fertile ground for incipient rebellions.

The wounded Liberal leader has a path to victory nonetheless. The Liberal brand is tarnished, but its values are closer to more Canadians than any others. The Tories are a formidable and well-financed attack machine, but the gap in finance and organization is narrowing. Ignatieff needs to listen to those who have made their party such a formidable competitor in the recent past and then act on some time-honoured strategies.

There are two key focuses to an opposition leader’s life: performing well in the House and building the party in the country. They mirror the two fundamental strategic challenges a leader faces: generating a portfolio of big compelling ideas and developing and executing the campaign plan to sell them to Canadians. So far Ignatieff has performed poorly in each of these quadrants.

He admits he does not like Question Period, or the rough trade performance that is required to be seen as a dominant player in Parliament. It shows. His performance on the stump in front of party activists is, as one colleague put it, “somewhat mixed…”

He has floated a few big ideas — dramatically raising Canadian immigration levels, for example — but then he either reverses himself at the first sign of criticism or lets them die for lack of care and feeding. He floated a trial balloon about an “adult conversation” on Canada’s coming fiscal disaster, but when the Conservatives shot it down, he retired that one from the field as well.

Big ideas stir big opposition; it is the essential test of their importance. Trudeau’s fixation on the Charter of Rights was derided in his own party and editorially for years in advance of his success. One need only say the words “free trade” to evoke powerful memories of one of Canada’s most savage political battles in the postwar era.

Ignatieff has positioned himself as a centrist on the economy, as a Canadian nationalist — but merely in the “Northern Romantic” mould, not anything more substantive in policy terms — and as a tough guy in partisan terms. Yet in the proposing and effective defence and championing of important new policy ideas, he comes across as the type of Liberal for whom moderate means modest and uncertain.

The solution to better performance on some of these tests is staring him in the face.

The Liberal front bench is full of seasoned, effective parliamentarians, comfortable as Tory battlers and good at lobby sound bites. Any of Ralph Goodale, Bob Rae, Carolyn Bennett or Scott Brison — and several others — can take on the Prime Minister and the Tory heavies better than their leader. Let them lead the Liberals’ House strategy. Several senior caucus members have been floating the idea of making Rae deputy leader with responsibility for House strategy, with three or four lieutenants tasked with challenging key Tory ministers on their most vulnerable policy files. Such a solution would free Ignatieff to do a lot more intensive party work in the field, where morale building, fundraising, and organizational muscle development are all desperately required. Ignatieff is prone to the same sort of mood swings as the Prime Minister. When he is in a funk he is painful to observe on stage. He has developed a reputation for bailing out of events, while his office pleads for a senior caucus substitute in desperation. During the 2006 leadership campaign he failed to show up at nearly two-thirds of the party’s formal candidate debates, and performed erratically at the few he attended. Observers say his performance is often directly related to whether his wife is sitting in the front row; he sags in her absence. None of this is fatal, but correcting it requires relentless discipline and practice: rehearsing and mastering 30 minutes of speech modules that become the base of a powerful stump speech; then learning how to smoothly insert new material into that frame, night after night.

Ignatieff is becoming a better speaker slowly, but he cannot move his audience each time he gets up. He needs to be able, like a Mulroney or a Chrétien, to excite a half-empty room, in a small town on a grim winter night, so that the partisans carry home a vision of hope and a determination. He is a long way from that level of professionalism today. Spending 200 days of the next year on the road is the probably the best way to get there.

The development of a long list of big ideas is not a leader’s task, but it is his job to commission the work and choose the winners from among them. Ignatieff has floated high-speed rail and a national energy grid as the types of projects that he believes will help rebuild national sinew and lay the foundation for a new economy. But like his earlier musings, they have been muttered — in these cases in the context of a book tour — and then allowed to disappear.

It is probably unwise to invest too much in the twice-delayed party thinkers’ conference now set for January. Some useful ideas may emerge from such a blue-sky gathering, but hard fiscal realities mean that any that require large investment are not likely to be politically useful in the short term. A useful backup to that exercise is a quieter, backroom effort to draw on the expertise of the many dozens of serious, seasoned Liberal policy veterans with expertise in government and business, scattered across the country.

No political organization has a deeper bench of former ministers, former premiers, sympathetic academics and business leaders. Time and again, both under Dion and today, one hears rumbles of complaint from this important network that no one calls. That is folly. By spending several evenings with David Dodge, Brian Tobin, Ed Clark, Ed Lumley, Frank McKenna and John Manley, Michael Ignatieff could quickly learn what Bay Street expects of the Liberal Party and where it is unhappy with the Harper government.

A weekend with Chaviva Hosek, Charles Pascal and Alex Himmelfarb would provide invaluable training in how to create a Red Book with red meat in it, how to sell it and then turn it into a powerful Throne Speech. Tom Axworthy and Janice Stein could assemble the best foreign policy minds in the world for a serious rethink of Canadian foreign policy goals. Beyond the extravagance of not using this bank of talent, it sends a message to the opinion elites of the country that the party is not serious about planning for government. Some have been tasked for smaller short-term projects and been unhappy at the management of the process.

There are two key focuses to an opposition leader’s life: performing well in the House and building the party in the country. They mirror the two fundamental strategic challenges a leader faces: generating a portfolio of big compelling ideas and developing and executing the campaign plan to sell them to Canadians. So far Ignatieff has performed poorly in each of these quadrants.

It is now urgent for Donolo and the revived Ignatieff team to lead the outreach to these important intellectual assets, to broaden and accelerate the so far under-performing platform development process. Crafting the big ideas, framing them under the umbrella of a strategic message and then battle-testing them for fiscal reality and popular appeal is tough, slogging political homework. But there are no alternative paths to power for this party and this leader. Iggymania was never a strategy and simply sounds embarrassing today. Developing and polishing this package is not a task that can be left to a small group of staff, MPs and riding presidents alone. The party and the country have seen the outcome of that approach in three successive Liberal campaigns.

The Liberal party is also rich with talent in message sculpting and delivery. Toronto and Montreal ad agencies are full of veterans of such efforts of the past 30 years. A new generation in those firms and newcomers in Calgary, Vancouver and Halifax would be thrilled to be invited to the Red Leaf Communications of the next decade. This requires respected intermediaries to begin the slow process of seduction and selection, men and women in the communications industries with credibility among their peers. Up to now, second-tier players have been in charge, and the message to the best and brightest has been, “If we need you, we’ll call.”

None of this speaks to the need to stop the party’s organizational rot. National director Rocco Rossi, applying his famous fundraising skills, has saved the party from bankruptcy, but the party office still has title organizational talent, despite having almost a dozen members in its finance team.

Finally, Ignatieff needs to commission some serious research and discussion on himself. No successful political leader is the product of his message, or of the strength of his campaign chest or organization alone. A compelling personal vision as a leader and as a human being, as a husband, father and friend, is the foundation.

Ignatieff has a sometimes difficult personal style in interpersonal contact: alternately overly effusive and distant, putting on an ingratiating grin that can dissolve into a chilling glare, summoning a laser-like glance that suddenly flicks off into a middle-distance stare. He can sit in one corner of an airport lounge reading quietly, oblivious to the curious stare of dozens of prospective voters around him, or sit at a party meeting reading notes and chatting with his wife as if they were at home in their living room. His long-developed carapace of emotional distance in public, the classic stance of a life as a professional observer, is often received as arrogance or disinterest.

The greatest leaders, however, take their weaknesses or infirmities and built powerful personas around them: Roosevelt’s polio-wracked body, Churchill’s triumph over a lifetime of depression, Trudeau’s shyness.

Some hours of listening to experts report the findings of focus group participants about his irritating quirks, perhaps even viewing the recordings of the sessions themselves, might provide the necessary bucket of cold water. Ignatieff is capable of being highly engaged, funny, acutely perceptive, but it is a side seen these days mostly by old friends in private. Ed Broadbent, David Peterson and Jean Charest are all examples of leaders who took early lumpy versions of their political personalities and with expert advice and hard work transformed themselves into formidable political leaders.

Liberal partisans are fond of repeating what a hard time every Liberal leader has had in opposition or at launch, and how they all subsequently blossomed. Apart from the fact that it is a somewhat selective view of history — remember John Turner and Paul Martin — it is probably one of those historic predictors that are no longer relevant. The Liberal Party today is a bastion under siege from almost every direction. It has many underutilized assets still available to it, but the base is weaker and narrower than at any time in a half century. For the first time in a generation, it faces threats from both left and right, in the form of well-funded and confident competitors.

The NDP and the Tories, and their leaders, are comfortable in their own political skins. Their bases are strong and, in several key communities, strengthening. Their messaging may be tired or tiresome to a large swath of undecided voters, but they have found strong, well-defended positions for their core supporters. That leaves perhaps one in four voters — especially in Ontario and Quebec — with uncertain loyalties to play for. Many of them have voted Liberal in the recent past.

A Liberal leader who looks and sounds as if he understands and cares about their lives; a leader who can deliver a passionate call to arms on behalf of a new Liberal vision of Canada; a man who is seen to have done the hard work and learned the hard lessons of political leadership could draw many of them back into the Liberal family.

Having squandered his first year as leader, Michael Ignatieff has less than one year left to figure out how.

Photo: The Gazzette, Montreal

Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

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