OTTAWA - A bipartisan parliamentary panel on reforming Employment Insurance is set to get down to business this week amid low expectations and non-existent publicity.

Creation of the six-person working group was the modest price for bypassing a summer election when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff negotiated their way out of an end-of-session impasse last month.

But now the panel has become something of a metaphor for the plight of the official Opposition during the dog days of summer.

"Is (Ignatieff) still leader of the Opposition or was he eaten by bears in Algonquin Park?" Monte Solberg, the former Harper cabinet member turned tongue-in-cheek pundit, asked in a recent newspaper column.

Ignatieff appears to be suffering the traditional seasonal fate of the politician who seeks to be prime minister - 40-plus days of wandering in the political desert.

Opposition leaders "can't get arrested" in July and August, says Peter Donolo, the former communications director to prime minister Jean Chretien.

Since the brief flash of a Commons confidence crisis at the end of June, Ignatieff delivered the Isaiah Berlin lecture to a Liberal International conference in London. The July 8 speech received scant media coverage in Canada.

There has been an almost viral, false campaign suggesting he's been holidaying at the family villa in France, something his office emphatically denies.

And a summer or fall "thinker's conference" for the Liberals that Ignatieff mused about in May has now been pushed back to early 2010, according to his spokeswoman Jill Fairbrother.

"In order to attract the best experts from across the country and to engage Canadians in a national online public policy exercise, we want to allow for the appropriate lead time," Fairbrother said in an email.

Add it all up and it amounts to . . . not much.

No one is saying much about the EI panel, even off the record.

Liberals received a departmental briefing on the Employment Insurance system last week and the full group is supposed to sit down sometime this week. No word when or where.

"The contents of the EI working group are confidential," Ryan Sparrow, the newly installed spokesman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said in a brief interview.

"We hope the Liberal party maintains that confidentiality as well."

There are, however, subterranean Tory rumblings that the Liberals appear to be offering no ideas on how the panel process should work or what they want out of it. Liberal observers, meanwhile, grumble that the choice of MP Pierre Poilievre - one of Harper's most loyal and partisan hit men - and the secondment of Sparrow from party HQ does not inspire confidence in a collegial negotiation.

"You try to make it work and, who knows, it might, right?" shrugged one Liberal.

That's a very low bar to clear for a panel that was portrayed as the deal-breaker on a national election call barely three weeks ago.

Donolo, a partner with The Strategic Council market research firm, says Ignatieff should follow the well-worn Opposition path used by Harper before him, and Chretien before that.

"They ought to put Ignatieff on a bus through every corner of Ontario and let him off after Labour Day," he said in an interview.

"Take advantage of the drop in national attention to really go after, at a grassroots level, the ridings they're going to need to win the election."

Chretien did the barbecue circuit in the early 1990s as Opposition leader, and Harper did the same thing in 2004 and 2005.

Rather than scratching for national headlines or pushing summer-doldrum poll numbers, "they need to focus on what are the next 50 seats they can win," said Donolo.

As for EI reform, some in the party believe it was never the Liberal hill to die on and won't be the ballot question in the next election. They hope, rather wistfully, that Harper's treatment of the issue feeds into wider public perceptions of Conservative handling of the recession.

"No one wants to be talking about this right now," another Liberal confided.

"The question is, what do (the respective parties) want people talking about the second week of September?"