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Ignatieff taps high-powered economic braintrust

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff has quietly reached out to an economic brain trust that includes former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge as his party begins developing a new platform that sources say would serve as an eventual trigger to bringing down the Conservatives.

Liberal sources said that Mr. Ignatieff met Mr. Dodge, TD Bank Financial Group CEO Ed Clark and two other notable economic thinkers at an exclusive dinner at his Stornoway home a few weeks ago. That group also included former deputy minister of finance Scott Clark and University of Quebec economist Pierre Fortin.

The session with the economists was a brainstorming meeting where Mr. Ignatieff's ideas for revamping Employment Insurance benefits were discussed, as well as notions on how Mr. Ignatieff should further stimulate the economy if he becomes prime minister.

The news of the meeting also came on a day when Liberals fought back against Conservative attack ads in ethnic media outlets.

A senior Liberal source said the group was in general agreement with a Liberal plan to revamp the EI system so it allows for a national standard of 360 hours worked before an individual can make a claim. Currently, different regions have different requirements before benefits can be collected.

“He was posing the question; ‘If I were prime minister, what are the things I ought to be doing?'” the source said.

Mr. Dodge and Scott Clark were both deputy finance ministers during the 1990s and, Mr. Dodge in particular, became widely known for his efforts to combat the deficit. Ed Clark, whose bank was instrumental in offering advice to the Ontario government on its recent budget, is also a former senior bureaucrat who played a large role in crafting the Trudeau government's National Energy Policy in the 1980s. Mr. Fortin is a well-known economist at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and was recently selected by the Quebec Association of Business Economists as the most influential Quebec economist of the past decade.

Mr. Dodge has disagreed with the government in the past on its outlook for a quick economic rebound and over its short-term stimulus package. He has, for example, said it's not realistic to think that Ottawa will bring its books back into surplus by the year 2013.

The senior Liberal said the dinner was a non-partisan affair.

News of the outreach came as Mr. Ignatieff's House Leader, Ralph Goodale, expressed deepening concern in Toronto yesterday about the pace of infrastructure spending and Tory resistance to the Liberal idea on changing EI.

Another senior Liberal said the party wants to keep the door open toward bringing down the Tories over the issue of Employment Insurance and/or the pace and success of stimulus funding, although the Liberal said the betting internally is against that happening this spring.

“We're tracking their performance,” Mr. Goodale told the Economic Club of Canada in a prepared text. “And two key areas are raising serious concerns – one is physical infrastructure, the other is employment insurance. Both were to be centrepieces of the government's economic action plan. Both are falling short.”

The Liberals say the Conservatives have been far too slow in delivering infrastructure funding to so-called “shovel-ready” projects because it is insisting on approving applications from various municipalities.

Although the Tories must deliver regular progress reports, Mr. Goodale did not lay down specific targets that the government must reach.

Some party members feel that the issues of EI and infrastructure are among the best ways of bringing down the government, in part because the other opposition parties – the Bloc Québécois and the NDP – would find it difficult to prop up the Tories.

Also yesterday, Mr. Ignatieff released a statement and a video to multicultural media outlets in which he defends his decision to have lived outside the country, an issue that is part of the Tory ad campaign against him.

“I have lived and worked outside this country, just like millions of other Canadians. And I'm proud of what I've achieved – always as a proud Canadian,” he says.

“But to Stephen Harper, to the Conservative Party, Canadians who have lived outside the country are less Canadian because of it. Tell that to new Canadians, born outside this country. Are they less Canadian because of it?”

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