Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ignatieff and Liberals will support Harmonised Sales Tax

Ivison thinks that this action shows leadership but leadership that is not suicidal as was his earlier decision to bring down the Conservative government. Actually the other decision was not suicidal at all because the NDP stepped in to save the Conservatives . However, this decision may be quite unpopular with the general public and will help the Conservatives. Given the already steep dip in Liberal poll numbers this may just make it certain that the Conservative government can rest easy this Xmas and well into the New Year.

Ignatieff stares down his MPs
Liberals will support HST

John Ivison, National Post

Blair Gable, Reuters
There's a Spanish proverb that says if you sit by the river long enough, the body of your enemy will float by.

Judging by his performance so far, patience is not a virtue Michael Ignatieff has in abundance. Many Canadians have the impression that if he can't be prime minister, he'd rather return to his ivory tower at Harvard. But yesterday the Liberal leader gave an indication that he may be in politics for the long haul.

When he emerged from a caucus meeting, convened to discuss the Liberal response to the government's harmonized sales tax legislation, he said his party will support the HST bill that will pay British Columbia and Ontario billions in transition funding as they merge the federal GST with their provincial sales taxes.

It was not the first time Mr. Ignatieff has shown bold leadership in the face of opposition from a large number of his MPs, but it was the first time he has shown bold leadership that was not, at the same time, suicidal.

In Sudbury last September, the Liberal leader came out of a caucus meeting that was near unanimous in its opposition to a fall election and announced he was intent on sinking Stephen Harper's government.

Yesterday, he faced MPs who saw an opportunity to tap into bubbling public anger over the HST, and indicated his MPs will have to support it, which will irk those who view the controversial new tax as a gift horse.

The early reaction from those emerging from caucus yesterday suggested those who want to come out against the HST will hold their tongues.

Mr. Ignatieff had three options going into yesterday's meeting. First, he could back the Conservative legislation, on the basis that it was a request from provincial governments in British Columbia and Ontario -- a stance that could be defended because of the new tax's potential to improve competitiveness and create jobs.

Alternatively, he could have staked out the middle ground by saying that his party backed the HST in principle, just not this version. Liberal MP Keith Martin recently proposed a revamped HST that would have mitigated the impact on consumers -- for example, by exempting management fees charged on mutual funds.

Finally, Mr. Ignatieff could have come out, guns blazing, against the tax and pledged to repeal it, if he ever became prime minister. This would have enraged the Liberal governments of Gordon Campbell in British Columbia and Dalton McGuinty in Ontario but would have allowed the federal Grits to exploit anger about the imposition of what many people see as a blatant government tax grab.

That he took the first option points to an evolution in Mr. Ignatieff's political thinking.

In days gone by, he would have been tempted to plump for the middle-ground fudge, as he weighed the pros and cons of the policy. Harry Truman's plea for a one-handed economist "because all my economists say 'on the one hand ... on the other' ", is an equally valid observation to make about journalists and intellectuals like Mr. Ignatieff. As a senior member of his caucus said yesterday: "Michael is learning that politics is black and white, not grey."

The third option had the potential to be a game-changer and the possibility that the Liberals could come out against the HST was of serious concern to the Conservatives. But it would have been yet another flip-flop that would have added credibility to the Tory attack ad claim that the Liberal leader is only in it for himself -- particularly since it was the Liberals who proposed the HST in the first place.

His attempt to bring down the government in September, just as the country appeared to be emerging from the economic doldrums, reinforced the impression that Mr. Ignatieff is a self-centred political opportunist.

His decision to endorse the HST is designed to shift those perceptions and underscore that he is prepared to do the "right thing," even if it costs him votes in the short term.

The broader implications of what may turn out to be a defining decision is that it makes a federal election next year more unlikely.

Peter Donolo, Mr. Ignatieff's new chief of staff, has promised to play a long game and the decision to back the HST seems to confirm that. If the Grits were planning to push for an election next spring or fall, surely they would have come out against a measure that is likely to be reaching fever pitch in the run-up to its July 1 introduction? One Liberal MP agreed: "I don't see an election until spring 2011. We've got to lay some track."

Mr. Donolo understands that the Conservative government is only four years old and doesn't yet have the nicks and scratches that persuade voters it's time to trade it in for a different model. He understands that the time spent in Opposition is not wasted, which is the impression Mr. Ignatieff has given. Rather, it is a time when the Opposition defines itself as an alternative.

Mr. Ignatieff still seems to be a leader without a clue when it comes to the reason he wants to be prime minister. There remains a vacuum where there should be values, priorities and a sense of purpose. But there is some progress. He is starting to make good decisions as a result of the experience he gained from making bad decisions. It may be a long wait, but the prize may yet come to him.

© 2009 The National Post Company. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication strictly prohibited.

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