The hawk turned butterfly yesterday. In making his first major decision as Opposition Leader, Michael Ignatieff checked his vertebrae at the press theatre door. In failing to demand strong amendments to the Conservative budget, in requiring only periodic report cards, he left himself open to ridicule - fig-leaf stuff, Jack Layton called it - from other party leaders and many a critic.
But behind the scenes, Liberals were explaining - and they may be right - that there was method in his mellowness. The Iggy strategy is to give the federal government a lifeline until the fall or thereabouts, and then pounce. The Liberal Leader didn't want to bring things to a head now. At this juncture, Canadians don't want an election. Nor are they enthusiastic about a coalition option. Mr. Ignatieff needs time to establish himself as leader and to reorganize and refinance the party.
During that time, the economic conditions could worsen and hunger for a new government grow.
By putting the government on probation, as he called it, he was attempting to control the agenda, to keep the sword of Damocles at his disposal. He is hoping Canadians will see his decision as the act of a responsible opposition leader, as opposed to one who is prematurely power-hungry.
He likely would have been better served had he combined the report-card requirement with a demand for amendments on a couple of the budget's more striking shortcomings. But he didn't want to give Stephen Harper any chance to call a snap election, one that likely would favour the governing party. There was a chance, had he decided to go the coalition route and topple the government, that he could have been prime minister by next week. It must have been an immensely tantalizing thought. But the chance of the Governor-General allowing a coalition to take power as opposed to sending the country to the polls was far too uncertain a prospect.
In announcing his decision, Mr. Ignatieff was trenchant, a welcome departure from Stéphane Dion's style. If his message wasn't strong, his delivery was potent, and it is becoming apparent that he is the best communicator the Liberals have had in the leader's seat since Pierre Trudeau.
Given some of the fallout from the budget, he may be pressed to keep some in his flock contented with his response. Newfoundland is angered that the equalization measures hurt the province. His Liberal MPs from the Rock will have to vote to bring in a budget that is unpopular in their home province.
Mr. Ignatieff probably knew that former coalition partners would rail against his decision - and that they did. The NDP Leader, his chance at power gone, said Mr. Ignatieff had given Mr. Harper a get-out-of-jail-free card and that the coalition was now a Harper-Ignatieff one. For the Bloc Leader, it was a matter of another federal leader, as he accused, turning his back on the people of Quebec. But Iggy won't be terribly bothered by either's reaction. He wants to separate himself from these guys and reposition his party in the moderate centre.
Mr. Harper will be happy with the outcome. He showed his strategic skills in the management of this budget, particularly with his prebudget leaks. They served to remove the most damaging story from the top of the heap - his gigantic reversal in promising zero deficits one week and projecting deficits of $64-billion a few weeks later. Ottawa is full of contradictions and hypocritical acts, but it is hard to recall one so grand as this. It came in the same period as his reversals on his fixed-election date pledge, his promise to let the opposition have a confidence vote on the November economic statement, his approach to Senate appointments.
Despite the reprieve, life will not be easy for Mr. Harper. His credibility, both in and outside his party, isn't what it used to be. The tides are turning, with liberal winds blowing strongly in the United States and, as evidenced by this quasi-liberal budget, blowing strong here.
South of the border, the conservatives, out of power, can watch and retool. Here, they can try and stay afoot on ground that isn't really their own. To survive, they have to be imposters of sorts. Despite getting their budget passed, they are no longer marching to their own drummer.