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On the bus: the Opposition that isn't

This week, the Liberal Party of Canada launched its summer campaign bus in a teeming downpour, with leader Michael Ignatieff gamely joking the rain was a Conservative ploy.

This week, the Liberal Party of Canada launched its summer campaign bus in a teeming downpour, with leader Michael Ignatieff gamely joking the rain was a Conservative ploy. A day later, the bus broke down, and the same leader (now that’s staying power) cracked the same joke.

In his bid to convince the people of Canada that he is just an ordinary Joe, and not some ivory-tower intellectual, Ignatieff has so far scored a fat zero. It’s not a bad sign that his bus broke down, or that he failed to control the weather - in those respects, he’s a lot like the rest of us. But his lame attempts at humour do nothing to further his cause. A real mensch can crack a joke without sounding desperate.

But more to the point, do Canadians really give a damn if Professor Ignatieff is one of the guys or not? If, at the end of the bus ride, the Opposition leader comes out smelling like Bob and Doug McKenzie (think Molson Canadian, with a hint of chainsaw oil) will it change his political fortunes one bit?

After all, he’s competing with a guy who loves hockey and can play Beatles songs with a charming air of self-deprecation. A guy’s guy who stands behind his troops and favours a guy’s right to keep his guns secret, a stand-up guy who refuses to foot the bill for baby-killing aid workers. How’s he going to out-proletarian that?

There’s no getting around it, if Ignatieff wants to distinguish himself from Stephen Harper without coming across as too brainy, he’s going to have to make a political break from the Conservatives. So far, he’s run the Liberal party as if it were a wing of Harper’s unstoppable flying machine (a broken, atrophied wing, flapping uselessly in the rhetorical wind).

Stephen Harper has never had a majority in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, he has managed to run Parliament with the absolute authority of a chain-gang overseer. Disdaining coalitions, he has pushed the Liberal Party into behaving like a coalition member, and one that gets nothing in return.

When Harper introduced an omnibus budget bill that would gut Canada’s already too-lax environmental assessment process and (insanely) privatize the Atomic Energy Commission, Liberal MPs suddenly, en masse, discovered they had pressing business in their ridings, and failed to show up for the vote.

Much the same happened when the Conservatives introduced their antediluvian get-tough-on-crime laws that have already begun to stuff Canada’s prisons like giant sausage skins. Bloq and NDP members were solidly opposed to turning Canada into Ronald Reagan’s American Dream, but Liberals either supported the motion or stayed home in sufficient numbers to let it pass.

Remember the detainee transfer story? Remember the Speaker of the House ruling that the government had to come clean with the hidden documents that may or may not prove that senior cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are complicit in such crimes as sexual torture, beatings with wire cables, electrocutions, and murder? Heard anything new about that lately?

If your answer is no, and it probably is, that’s because the Liberals went along with a deal that allows the government to keep the most potentially damaging materials hidden, probably forever. As recently as July 5, the Globe and Mail was reporting that an investigation in the British courts had found two new cases where prisoners detained by Canadian forces had been beaten and abused by Afghanistan’s notorious secret police, the NDS.

Canadian officials dismissed the allegations on the grounds that the NDS had investigated itself and found itself innocent on all charges. If you got a chuckle out that one, thank the Liberals. If they had not caved in and let the government suppress evidence, the torture story might still be alive and well in Canada, and there might still be some hope of finding out who knew what, and when.

No, getting on a cross-country bus and cracking inept jokes isn’t going to distinguish Liberals from Conservatives in the minds of Canadians, not even if Ignatieff manages to come up with a set of kinder, gentler policies that distinguish his voting wing of the Conservatives from the main branch.

What we need is some evidence that, when push comes to shove, Liberals are able and willing to shove back. Right now, Ignatieff could be calling all his senators home to fight the omnibus bill. He isn’t. He could be speaking out about the painful contortions of the Conservatives as they wriggle out of opening the books on the torture of prisoners. He isn’t. He could be convincing Canadians that he is better prime-ministerial material than Stephen Harper, but he won’t.

Because he isn’t.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.