HALIFAX, N.S. - Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff cast himself as a hard-driving man of action Thursday, telling the first in a series of town hall meetings that if he was prime minister he would stimulate the gasping economy by quickly cutting taxes, overhauling the EI system and investing in municipal projects.
The Toronto MP, hastily appointed to lead the party in early December, appeared at ease and on his game as he fielded questions from some of the 200 people gathered inside the Neptune Theatre in downtown Halifax.
When Stephen Lund, the head of Nova Scotia's business lending agency, asked what Ignatieff would do within the first 100 days of being elected to govern, the former Harvard professor was ready with a three-point plan that included a pledge to light a fire under Ottawa's slow-moving bureaucracy.
"It's going to be very important to get stimulus into the Canadian economy fast, so we may be looking at tax cuts very quickly - tax cuts targeted at medium-and low-income (Canadians) to boost their purchasing power fast," he told the public meeting, the first in a series across Canada.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said his Jan. 27 budget would contain some form of tax cuts to spur spending.
Ignatieff wouldn't say what specific tax cuts he would support, but he said he wants them to be permanent without causing a structural deficit in future federal budgets.
The Liberal leader said the ruling Tories have been "astoundingly slow at getting money out the door."
He then said he would hire a team of experts to compile a list of "shovel ready" infrastructure projects. Team members would have to be prepared to work up to 90 hours a week, "calling every darn mayor in the country and saying, 'What do you got?' "
"You have to change the rules by which this money gets out the door," he said, calling attention to the mayor of Halifax, Peter Kelly, who was in the audience.
"I phone you and I say, 'What do you need?' " Ignatieff said.
Kelly was quick to respond with a shout, "I got a list - $1.2 billion."
The audience roared.
"If the problem is speed, if the problem is action, this is where leadership can make a difference," Ignatieff said.
He also said he would overhaul Employment Insurance to ensure the unemployed receive their benefits in less than the usual 40 days.
That's when he took aim at the bureaucrats.
"You have to have a prime minister who says, 'I'm tired of your excuses. Get some more people. Get this thing processed. Get these cheques out the door.' "
EI must also be changed to offer retraining for unemployed workers, he said.
Ignatieff accused the Conservatives of being unprepared for the recession, saying the ill-fated economic statement the government released in November shows it was out of touch with the financial reality facing the country.
"We're not in good shape at the moment," he said. "This is a government that entered this recession without a plan, without foresight, without planning. They've displayed an astonishing lack of competence in the last 18 months."
Still, Ignatieff signalled that he is not in a rush to defeat the minority Conservatives and force an election, adding that he told Prime Minister Stephen Harper when they met recently that the government must reduce the number of confidence votes in the House of Commons.
"We will see whether the Conservative government changes the way it does business in the House," he said. "And if they do that's a positive sign."
Ignatieff's national tour on the economy will also include visits to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
Ignatieff said he wants to hear from Canadians about the challenges they face as the Liberals draw up their priorities for the upcoming session of Parliament.
The party leader has recently attracted criticism for keeping a relatively low profile since he assumed the top post. He apparently used the Christmas break to finish up his latest book while assembling teams in the Opposition Leader's Office and party headquarters.
Meanwhile, Ignatieff has warned he's prepared to pursue the coalition agreement with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois if he's not satisfied with the federal budget later this month.