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Liberals need time to find vision and spine

It is called the will to power: a leader who is determined to do whatever it takes to win or hold on to office. Stephen Harper has it. Michael Ignatieff lacks it.

The Liberal Leader is struggling to contain the latest bout of internal dissent: a Facebook missive from Janine Krieber, wife of former leader Stéphane Dion, that claimed the party was in terminal decline and headed for "the trashcan of history."

"I just spoke to Stéphane," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters outside the House of Commons yesterday. "Stéphane is a colleague and friend, and has given me absolutely magnificent support throughout my leadership."

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Mr. Dion has indeed been steadfast. And this latest contretemps will soon evaporate. But it reinforces an unwelcome trend. Years of missteps, accelerated by weeks of poor judgment and worse luck, have left the Liberal Party and its leader in a dangerous place.

If recent polls are accurate, the base of the party - those who are prepared to support it, come perdition or flood - has eroded from somewhere around 30 per cent of the electorate to around 25 per cent or below.

Is this ephemeral - Stephen Harper knocks 'em dead singing a Beatles' song; Denis Coderre goes rogue in Quebec - and bound to rebalance over time?

Or is something happening? Is a party of the East losing its grip on a country where power is flowing West? Are new Canadians losing their ironclad loyalty to a party that does no more for them than the Conservatives are doing? Has an urban party lost touch with edge cities where all the growth is found?

The answer to these questions, and to the question of the leader's will to power, will determine whether the Liberals are simply going through a bad patch, or on the wrong side of history.

The Liberals blame their sagging popularity on a government ruthlessly exploiting the spoils of office to lavish spending on vulnerable ridings, willing to pervert government communications for partisan ends.

"They've had the largest advertising campaign in the history of the country," said Mario Laguë, Mr. Ignatieff's new communications director. Even so, "there's a very big majority of Canadians who cannot stand those guys."

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The challenge, for Mr. Laguë, is to harness the rookie enthusiasm of the leader's office. "There's a lot of ideas here, there's a lot of energy," he maintained. "It's just a question of bringing a bit of focus."

To bring that focus, Mr. Ignatieff has replaced most of his senior staff. His party is pounding the issue of detainee abuse in Afghanistan, and what the government should have known about it.

The party's single biggest asset may be conventional wisdom, which maintains the Liberals are on the skids. In politics, conventional wisdom invariably describes a condition that no longer applies.

But this much is true: Two months ago, the Liberals were trying to force an election, convinced they would win it. Today, survival depends on buying time - to repair, rebuild, rebrand.

Beyond lack of focus, or lack of political will, is the question of purpose. Simply put, and many are putting it: What do the Liberals stand for?

What direction would they take the country that differs from the ruthlessly pragmatic (and, arguably, visionless) approach of the current government?

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"What's in it for me?" asks the guy nursing his double-double at a suburban-anywhere strip mall, or the immigrant Canadian struggling to make it in this cold, new land, or the senior fighting to stay in her own home.

The Tory message is clear: We'll cut your taxes, manage the downturn, fight bad guys at home and abroad.

What is the Liberal message?

The party needs time to find one, it needs time to season its leader in the way of the political world, it needs time to find vision and spine.

The only way to counter the will to power is with a stronger will. In politics, that is as close as you get to universal truth.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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