BADDECK, N.S. - Federal Liberals are setting up the fall as a political grudge match between "Open Mike" and "Closed Steve."
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff plans to follow up his summer-long, coast-to-coast bus tour with weekly "open mike" townhall meetings across the country.
And he'll continue his bus travels with trips to northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories, winding up with a rally in his Toronto riding.
Liberal strategists are portraying the gambit as evidence of a leader who listens and responds to the concerns of Canadians, who's willing to take some risks in spontaneous encounters with real people.
Liberals contend that's a stark contrast with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom they characterize as a scripted, out-of-touch leader who rarely emerges from his tightly-controlled security bubble.
Indeed, contrast is the operative word as Liberals plot strategy for the Sept. 20 return of Parliament.
Ignatieff went out of his way Wednesday to play up the differences between himself and Harper on a number of fronts — hope versus fear, inclusive versus narrow, progressive social priorities versus spending on planes and prisons — as he wrapped up a three-day Liberal caucus retreat.
He accused Harper of fear-mongering in his bid to frame the next election as a choice between a Conservative majority and a coalition of the Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois parties.
"That's how Mr. Harper governs — 'let's make you very scared of someone you were never scared of before,'" Ignatieff scoffed at a closing news conference.
"The census-taker (for instance). Let's make you very scared of the coalition. Let's make you scared of pretty well everybody and then you come home to me because you feel safe. That's the strategy, that's the style of the Conservative government.
"I don't want to appeal to fear. I want to appeal to hope and optimism and the sense that . . . there's so much more that we share than what divides us."
Unlike Harper, Ignatieff said he likes "playing with other children." Indeed, the whole point of his cross-country travels has been to appeal to supporters of other parties to join "the big red tent" of the Liberal party.
"We are the coalition. We are the big, broad, inclusive tent that wants to get all Canadians in who want progressive, responsible government."
Ignatieff also pounced on Harper's visit Wednesday to Quebec, where the prime minister announced the government is extending the maintenance contract for Canada's CF-18s until the next generation of fighter jets arrive. The government has committed $9 billion to purchase a new fleet of F-35 fighter jets but that pricetag could double once the maintenance contract is finalized.
Ignatieff said Wednesday marked the first trip for Harper to Quebec in 110 days — aside from private time spent at the prime ministerial country retreat. He contrasted that with his own vision of Canada as a country that doesn't simply include Quebec but which is "impossible without Quebec."
Moreover, Ignatieff said Harper's announcement demonstrates a prime minister who's out of touch with the anxieties of Quebecers who, like all Canadians, are worried about their jobs, retirement security, the overburdened health-care system and the high cost of post-secondary education.
"The priorities of this government are prisons and planes. Is this what Canadians want from their government right now in the middle of a $54-billion deficit?"
Ignatieff said a Liberal government would "take a long, hard look" at all military procurements.
"We are not convinced we need these planes. We're not convinced we need this number of planes."
While he was emphasizing the contrast between Liberals and Conservatives, Ignatieff simultaneously kept up his attack on NDP Leader Jack Layton for waffling on the controversial long-gun registry.
A handful of New Democrats could determine the fate of the registry in a crucial vote on Sept. 22. Unlike Ignatieff, Layton is refusing to whip his MPs to vote to save the registry.
"You can either go with the police, the RCMP, the emergency-room doctors, everybody who says we need a gun registry . . . or you can go with Mr. Harper. It's time to choose," Ignatieff said, urging Layton not to "form a coalition with Mr. Harper" on the registry.
Liberals are hoping Ignatieff's continued travels and townhalls this fall will help sustain the modest momentum the party has built up with his bus tour over the summer.
Ignatieff said he's in no rush to trigger an election this fall, arguing that earning the trust of voters is "not the work of a single day, it's work that takes time."
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