On CBC's always-excellent At Issue panel last night, former Liberal campaign chief David Herle said that his party had failed to articulate/communicate its clear differences with the ruling Conservatives. He also said that these differences had to be forged in the realm of economic matters.
I'm very fond of Herle and think he's one of the smartest people I've ever met in politics, but I find myself disagreeing with this diagnosis. First of all, I'm not sure that there are really any significant differences between the parties on large economic matters -- no one wants deficits or taxes. As Chretien liked to say: everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
Moreover, most macro-economic matters are out of Canadians' control anyway; subject to the whims of the global economy. I've never really understood for the past decade or so why politicians keep saying that their number-one issue is the economy. Of course it is; if you're not interested in the economy, you're probably not fit to govern. But what do you propose to *do* about it?
As for the clear-differences thing, two of my favourite columnists remind us today that Liberals have spent the past year carving out some large social-policy distinctions with the Conservatives. And Conservatives have been enormously helpful in the clear-differences thing too, staking out hard positions on the census, gun control and overseas abortions, which are quite easy for the Liberals to oppose.
Here's what Chantal Hebert writes today about the differences:
In the House of Commons, the Liberal critique of the government has been refocused on policy rather than politics and the shadow cabinet has been overhauled.
No opposition party is ever totally free of the tyranny of the daily headlines but no longer is the Liberal question period strategy totally predicated on them.
One can disagree with the Liberal stances on the gun registry; the government’s anti-smuggling legislation; the desirability of a bilingual Supreme Court; the Afghan mission and the Saskatchewan PotashCorp. takeover but the fact remains that these are all politically difficult issues on which the party has taken clear positions.
And here's Susan Riley, in the Ottawa Citizen.
But for many voters, Ignatieff is still the serious guy in the corner, frowning and taking notes.
Yet he has taken stands: defending the gun registry, opposing the sole-sourced contract for new fighter planes, denouncing a clumsy Tory bill intended to stop human smuggling, supporting a ban on tanker traffic in northern B.C. waters. He has offered a home-care program that is limited in scope, but addresses real, as opposed to invented, concerns. And recently, instead of being conveniently unavailable, he voted in favour of extending Charter protections to transgendered people.
I think the Liberals' main problem is that no one's paying attention -- even partisans. Liberals, in their endearingly self-immolating fashion, prefer to natter among themselves about leadership and who has the better talking points. Again, see the Riley column and what Dr. Bennett diagnoses as the ailment: "leaderitis."
I know there are some serious folks who would like to help the party get some more attention for its home-care plan, etc., and remind politicos that it was the Liberal party doing some hard slogging on policy this year through the Montreal conference, the summer tour, etc. But the political fray in Ottawa is mostly about who's up, who's down, who's leaking out of caucus, and so on. (zzzzzzzzz) In that climate, no one is even looking for clear policy differences, much less reporting on them in a sustained basis. They're all wondering what Ignatieff is going to sing at the Christmas party to upstage Harper. Heck, the Prime Minister has even screwed up efforts to drive a partisan wedge in the old Beatles-Rolling Stones debate. He's performed both! What will Liberals stand for now?