OTTAWA – It should have been a seminal moment for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
After propping up the Harper government in 79 consecutive confidence votes, the Liberals had finally tabled their own motion of non-confidence, agitating to bring down the government over what they deem its abysmal economic management.
But when Ignatieff strode to the microphone after question period Monday, not one reporter asked about it. Instead, he was bombarded with queries about a crisis of confidence in his own leadership, precipitated by the resignation earlier in the day of his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Coderre.
“It’s another great day in the life of the leader of the Opposition,” he quipped.
Coderre’s noisy exit followed a week of public infighting over his attempt to block the political comeback of Martin Cauchon, a former fellow cabinet minister and possible future leadership rival. Ignatieff, who had initially supported Coderre’s decision, reversed himself at the end of last week.
The timing of Coderre’s public sulk couldn’t have been worse for Ignatieff.
He wanted to demonstrate that Liberals are united and ready to resume their place as the self-described natural governing party. Instead, the scrap showed a bitterly divided party that still has trouble managing its own affairs.
Conservatives were quick Monday to rub salt in the fresh wound. They portrayed Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the only one focused on nurturing the fragile economic recovery while taunting the Liberals for being preoccupied with petty political games.
“We are hard at work. We are focused on the economy,” Transport Minister John Baird told the House of Commons.
“We are working together with our political opponents … and maybe we could see a bit of unity come from the Liberal caucus, particularly in the province of Quebec.”
The flap also underscored a potential weakness in Liberal election strategy, which has counted on making major gains in Quebec – the one bright spot for Liberals in otherwise dispiriting public opinion polls of late.
Polls suggest the Conservatives have pulled into a comfortable lead nationally over the last few weeks. But they are still trailing badly in Quebec behind the Liberals, who’ve come within spitting distance of the front-running Bloc Quebecois.
Hence, Liberal campaign officials have talked hopefully about more than doubling their current 14 seats in the volatile province.
On that score, Coderre’s parting shot – that Ignatieff is taking advice from “his Toronto advisers who know nothing about the social and political realities of Quebec” – was particularly unhelpful.
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe pounced on the remarks to bolster his case that only his party can give its undivided attention to Quebec.
“It’s the situation with all pan-Canadian political parties,” he said.
“It’s the rest of Canada that decides and Quebecers who are a minority. They give in … (to ) the dictates of the rest of Canada.”
The NDP’s lone Quebec MP, Thomas Mulcair, predicted the feud between Cauchon and Coderre, two Chretien-era ministers, will remind Quebecers of another remnant from the Chretien era – the toxic sponsorship scandal that decimated Liberals in the province.
“It allows me to remind people of that sordid history of the Liberal party of Canada and you can rest assured that I will be doing just that,” said Mulcair, who will face off against Cauchon in the Montreal riding of Outremont.
For his part, Ignatieff tried to dismiss the whole affair as an internal spat of little interest to the average voter in Quebec.
During a visit to Trois Rivieres over the weekend, he said Quebecers approached him to say: “Mr. Ignatieff, you’re our guy in Quebec because we don’t trust Mr. Harper and we’re tired of voting for the Bloc, right?
“That’s what this is all about.”