OTTAWA – Michael Ignatieff seems destined to emerge from a Liberal caucus retreat this week feeling something like a pushmi-pullyu.
Like the fictional two-headed llama, the Liberal leader will be pushed and pulled in opposite directions as his MPs agonize over whether they should – finally – pull the plug on Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government.
For their part, MPs may well feel like they’re caught in a bad remake of the movie Groundhog Day, doomed to relive the same should-we-or-shouldn’t-we debate over and over and over again.
It’s a debate they perfected during Stephane Dion’s troubled tenure as leader, repeatedly rattling their election sabres only to sheath them grudgingly when dismal opinion polls and the party’s own lack of preparedness forced them to back down.
The pattern has continued since Ignatieff took the helm last December.
Liberals swallowed their objections and supported the Conservatives’ recession-busting budget in January. They turned the trick again in June, backing away from the election brink after wringing a small concession from Harper: the creation of a bipartisan working group to study employment insurance reform.
At the time, Liberal spinners assured reporters this would be the last time the party would shy away from forcing an election. They boldly predicted defeat of the government was all but certain in the first week of October, when the Liberals would use a promised opposition day to propose a motion of non-confidence.
But as Liberal MPs and senators prepare to gather in Sudbury this week to plot strategy for the resumption of Parliament on Sept. 14, election-mongering is already giving way to calls for delay, if not outright retreat.
Senator David Smith, the Liberals’ national campaign co-chairman, is openly saying EI reform – over which Liberals and Conservatives have been squabbling all summer – is not a sufficient election trigger. And he’s arguing it would be irresponsible to defeat the government at the first opportunity.
Privately, some strategists and MPs admit they need time to regain ground lost over the summer, during which the Liberals’ brief, late-spring public opinion lead over the Tories appears to have evaporated.
Most polls suggest they’re back in a statistical tie with the Conservatives, or slightly behind. Insiders say internal party polling has found even weaker support, both for the party and Ignatieff, who has faced criticism for keeping a relatively low profile over the summer while the prime minister grabbed the limelight and basked in tentative signs of economic recovery.
Before attempting to pull the plug, Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House leader, concedes the party may need to give the fall parliamentary sitting “at least a little time to get its traction back” after Harper’s “free ride” over the summer.
Liberals are expected to start trying to regain that traction with a massive ad campaign – with a rumoured price tag of $2 million – after Labour Day. Insiders say the campaign is aimed at helping voters, for whom Ignatieff remains somewhat of a cipher, to get to know the leader and what he stands for.
According to Goodale, Liberals hope to use the fall to expand on the theme that – unlike Harper’s “petty partisan negativity” – Ignatieff has an inspirational dream of turning Canadians into the best educated, healthiest, most productive, innovative and entrepreneurial people “on the face of the earth” by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
While some strategists are counselling patience, others close to Ignatieff – and many MPs, who loathe propping up the government – are raring to plunge into a campaign. They argue that Ignatieff’s and the party’s credibility can’t withstand yet another retreat.
Moreover, they point out that the party is organizationally more prepared for an election than it has been in years.
In the second quarter, Liberals finally managed to raise money on par with the cash-hoovering Tories. And, even in the doldrums of summer, national Liberal director Rocco Rossi says the party scored its “best August (fundraising results) in a very, very long time.”
Rossi says the party is also on track to meet his Labour Day goal of 100,000 members – almost triple the number who were signed up at the start of the year.
The campaign platform, which Ignatieff ordered to be finished by June, is also “in good shape,” according to platform chair Navdeep Bains.
As well, Smith says the party will have nominated the bulk of its candidates by the end of September.
Whatever his own reservations, Smith says: “If and when (an election) does happen, we’ll be ready.”