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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told his caucus this week that he can't figure out what the Ignatieff Liberals are up to. It was Wednesday morning and news outlets were full of stories about the departure of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's chief of staff, Ian Davey, and the arrival of former Chrétien communications director and national pollster, Peter Donolo.

"Not sure what the 'pollster' will do for him," Mr. Harper said, according to a Tory insider.

Isn't it obvious? Mr. Donolo will right the Liberal world.

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At least that is the view of Grits whose reality now is slumping opinion polls, missteps and indecisiveness. This change in leadership in the Opposition Leader's Office is being applauded by Liberals, who regard this as a bright and new beginning. So high are the expectations for Mr. Donolo, it has become comical: "Peter Donolo can set ants on fire with a magnifying glass. At night," blogger Jeff Jedras wrote. "Some people wear Superman pyjamas. Superman wears Peter Donolo pyjamas," he added.

Now, enthusiasm and morale are important in politics, but so is managing expectations. That will be one of Mr. Donolo's biggest tasks. Is he up to it?

"Peter will be respected," predicts Eddie Goldenberg, former principal secretary and long-time adviser to Jean Chrétien and the man who "discovered" Mr. Donolo nearly 20 years ago. They remain close friends.

Mr. Donolo worked for Mr. Chrétien from 1991 to 1999. He has experience in both opposition and government, something lacking in Mr. Ignatieff's office. Mr. Donolo has seen some crazy ideas in his political career, which will give him the confidence to advise Mr. Ignatieff about what works and what doesn't. He won't be easily distracted by the small stuff, says Mr. Goldenberg, who believes that Mr. Donolo will act as Mr. Ignatieff's institutional memory and his gut.

Over coffee Friday, Mr. Goldenberg recalled his first meeting with Mr. Donolo in 1991. He cold-called him after reading a newspaper article by The Globe and Mail's Michael Valpy about a young whiz-kid communicator who was working in then-mayor-of-Toronto Art Eggleton's office. The meeting ended with a job offer.

In his book, The Way it Works, Mr. Goldenberg writes about life in opposition. Everyone hates opposition - you don't have the levers of power, you're not able to bring in your own ideas and policies and you have to be so patient.

Mr. Goldenberg says Mr. Ignatieff's job is made that much more difficult because of the minority government. When he was in opposition, he said, he was able to plan, knowing the government was not about to fall on a moment's notice.

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Building a team, both in the party and in the caucus, thinking strategically about policy and avoiding falling into the traps of opposition, such as promising something that is impossible to deliver in government - remember scrapping the GST? - are the keys to success, he says.

Another aspect of Mr. Donolo's job in opposition will be to ensure that Liberals create the conditions for the government to defeat itself. There was a view among some Liberals that Mr. Ignatieff's inner circle's distaste for the government was so visceral that it simply believed it would blow up on its own.

Another piece of advice: Mr. Goldenberg notes that none of the principals in the Chrétien opposition - Mr. Donolo, policy adviser Chaviva Hosek, chief of staff Jean Pelletier and communications adviser Patrick Parisot - had been friends before joining the office.

"We didn't come in as groupies … it's a team that jelled," says Mr. Goldenberg. This approach differs from other leaders, including Paul Martin, who kept his leadership team intact when he became prime minister, and Mr. Ignatieff, who did the same when he became leader. It was not a successful approach.

Perhaps this is a good lesson for opposition leaders: You don't dance with the ones that brung ya.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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