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Ignatieff ends 'national conversation' with few hints of his agenda

OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff wrapped up Monday the first phase of his "national conversation" about the challenges facing Canada giving few hints about his own vision for the country.

OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff wrapped up Monday the first phase of his "national conversation" about the challenges facing Canada giving few hints about his own vision for the country.

At the eleventh and last stop on his cross-country tour of university campuses the Liberal leader reiterated the broad strokes of his long term agenda: to make Canada the best educated, most energy efficient and most internationally-attuned country in the world.

But he offered no precision on how a Liberal government would dig the country out from under the massive $56 billion deficit racked up over the past year - the crucial question that will determine what, if any, big ticket promises Ignatieff will be able to make in an eventual election platform.

Nor was there any word on whether a Liberal government would keep spending to goose a recovery that is producing precious few new jobs to offset employment that disappeared during the recession.

Kevin Page, the independent parliamentary budget officer, has warned that the federal government is facing a structural deficit of almost $19 billion by 2013-14, a chronic annual shortfall that will only be overcome by drastic tax hikes and spending cuts.

Ignatieff said he's "more and more convinced" by Page's argument "but we're not there yet." At the same time, he reiterated his aversion to raising taxes, at least in the short term, and said no decisions can be made until Liberals get a chance to see the government's books.

"The economy is still struggling and so the last thing you want to do is kill it off with ill-judged increases in revenue. But you know, I need to see where we are, I need to see what numbers we're looking at," he told reporters following a question and answer session with about 250 students at the University of Ottawa.

Ignatieff said the onus is on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to show how he'd eliminate the deficit. And he said Harper's deficit reduction plans so far "don't add up" - even though there is no discernable difference thus far between Harper and Ignatieff on the issue.

Both leaders have said they won't raise taxes and won't cut transfer payments to the provinces or to individuals. They've both played down the spectre of drastic spending cuts, suggesting the deficit will disappear over time as the economy grows.

Ignatieff dodged when asked whether Liberals are prepared to risk an election should they disagree with Harper's recipe for debt reduction, to be unveiled in a budget on March 4.

"That's what's called a hypothetical question. I'm not there yet," he said.

"Nobody here is talking about an election. I'll look at the budget and assess it when I see it."

After a rocky autumn of internecine squabbling and plunging poll numbers, Ignatieff's campus tour was intended to showcase the former academic in a setting in which he's most comfortable.

It was also meant to kick off a three-month "national conversation" with Canadians, which will culminate March 26-28 with a "thinkers' conference" in Montreal. The conference is intended to help Liberals map out an agenda to take Canada to its 150th birthday in 2017.

As a prelude to the conference, a number of experts have been invited to a two-day Liberal caucus meeting, starting Tuesday. They will kick-start discussions on some of the issues that will be up for debate in Montreal, including the economy, the environment and pensions.