Strategy

Ignatieff quiet on economy

Although the interim Liberal leader will officially take over the party this weekend, he's yet to make any big economic policy announcements. And he wants to keep it that way.

When Michael Ignatieff officially becomes Liberal leader at the party’s convention in Vancouver, which starts today, don’t expect any big policy announcements, especially when it comes to the economy.

Since replacing Stéphane Dion in December, the former Harvard professor has mostly been mum on the global recession and what he’d do to fix Canada’s financial fortunes if he became prime minister.

“His policies are ill-defined,” says James Laxer, a political science professor at York University. “He seems to be playing the classic role of opposition leader — let the government defeat itself and look as credible as you can as a potential government-in-waiting.”

Part of the reason for his silence, says Rob Silver, a Toronto-based lawyer and Liberal insider, is that the economic climate is changing so rapidly that whatever he says today will be out of date tomorrow.

“No one knows where things will be five months from now,” he explains. “How can you put a costed version on something and commit to it 100% when you don’t know what the growth numbers or the size of the federal deficit will be?

“If you’re Jack Layton and playing with Monopoly money it’s easy to commit to everything,” Silver continues. “But I’m not sure how any leader, at this point, could responsibly tie themselves to specifics.”

Silver says other factors are keeping Ignatieff quiet, too — whatever he says will be used by the Conservatives in attack ads, or possibly co-opted, and he’s not actually leader until the convention.

While Ignatieff might not be making any grand proclamations, he has made a few announcements that point to where he stands on the economy. He’s voiced his support for Alberta’s oilsands, he’s said Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program was a mistake, he opposes Dion’s green shift platform, he’s wants to build an expensive high-speed rail link in the Windsor/Quebec City corridor, and he’d like to see improvements in the employment insurance program.

In some ways, says Silver, much of the economic moves Ignatieff has made are more right-leaning “to the displeasure of some people within his own party.”

“He’s gone fairly right in terms of promoting and saying how important the oilsands are to the economy,” he says. “A whole series of questions flow from that — [for instance,] what does this mean for how he’ll handle climate change policy? It speaks to the priorities in terms of the types of issues he might promote.”

At the same time, projects like the high-speed rail line or an east-west electricity grid, which he also supports, are “far more interventionist,” says Silver. “So while he seems to be on the right wing of the Liberal party, he’s not easy to pin down. There isn’t a box where he fits.”

Missteps

Keeping relatively silent on economic matters doesn’t mean Ignatieff hasn’t had some missteps along the way. In mid-April, he said that he will have to raise taxes to combat the growing deficit. That comment sparked outrage from the Conservatives and forced the interim leader to soften his comments. “I will do anything I can, and any sensible politician will do anything they can, to avoid increasing the tax burden on Canadians, especially now and hopefully later as well,” he said on April15.

“He made the classic politician mistake. No doubt the second it came out of his mouth he knew he said something wrong,” says Silver. “He gave a serious answer to a hypothetical question.”

But this political slip-up does offer some additional insight into what Ignatieff might do as prime minister. Silver says balancing budgets will be a priority, so spending and tax policy will be kept in a framework of what Canada can afford. “He might distinguish himself from Harper with this, because global circumstances have made balancing budgets less of a priority,” Silver explains.

Another blunder came around the time of the federal budget. Laxer points out that for weeks Ignatieff was criticizing the Conservatives’ fiscal plans, only to vote for them. Then, days later, he chastised Harper for the worsening economy and said they need new economic policies. “Harper said, pretty logically, ‘We just came out with budget and you supported it.’”

Laxer wonders if Ignatieff is actually that concerned about the economy. He says his past writings and speeches show that he has a more humanitarian or social bent, rather than an economic one.

“This is a guy who wants to play on the world’s stage and who has spent most of his career thinking about issues of high global policy,” he says. “But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the Canadian economy he hasn’t given it a lot of thought.

“If I had to choose leaders who know a lot about the economy,” Laxer adds, “I think someone like (England’s prime minister) Gordon Brown or (Germany’s leader) Angela Merkel know a lot more. Even Barack Obama knows more, or at least he’s been learning it pretty quickly.”

Silver counters by saying that when Ignatieff becomes leader, and especially when an election is called, he will surround himself with people who know a lot about the economy.

“If you look at his political career since he came to Canada, he’s done a very good job surrounding self with smart people,” Silver reveals. “No leader can be expected to know everything.”

When an election is called, it’s likely Ignatieff will reveal some of his economic positions, but, explains Laxer, Canadians may still not find out a whole lot more than we do now.

“Unlike Dion, who came up with a clear policy and then allowed the Conservatives to go after him on it, Ignatieff’s strategy will be to just hope that Canadians will be ready to defeat Harper,” he says. “He won’t get any clearer on his policies going into the election, and he may remain fuzzy on the economy even through the election. That could very well be his strategy and it may be a winning one.”