When he turns his mind to rural issues, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff can be eloquent.
The rural-urban divide, he said recently in Guelph, Ont., as he has before, is an unacceptable blight on Canada. “This is the undiscussed national unity challenge of our time.”
He describes it as a “values discussion” that challenges the very Canadian notion of fairness and equal opportunity.
And in Guelph, he began to articulate ideas for the next Liberal election platform – giving farmers a pen to help write more effective agricultural policy, regional funding flexibility and the creation of a rural secretariat reporting directly to the prime minister.
In talking rural, at least once in a while, he is doing what a leader must do – try to make the party competitive in a part of the country where it has largely lost its appeal.
Except for pockets in Atlantic Canada, rural Canada has turned its back on the Liberals and as many as 70 House of Commons seats have a significant rural base.
If you are a political leader aspiring to majority government, the math is simple. At least 155 seats are necessary for a bare majority in a House with 308 members.
With the Bloc Québécois holding a 17-year lock on between 40 and 50 Quebec seats and the Conservatives consistently picking up 60 of the rural influenced seats, it becomes a competition for the remaining 208. A majority would require winning 75 percent of the competitive seats.
So Ignatieff has no choice.
Rural voters at election time seem able to remember Liberal sins committed in some cases before they were born – the National Energy Program, Pierre Trudeau wondering why he should sell western wheat, the gun registry, botched farm programming and most recently, the carbon tax proposal.
And since Liberals were in power when the template for the current array of often-dysfunctional programs was created, farmer voters would be wise to look a bit skeptically at promises to reform.
Still, if Ignatieff is serious, there is a policy that the Liberals could offer.
In four short years, the Conservatives have changed the underpinnings of agriculture policy, philosophically if not in program detail.
AgriStability is much like the hated Canadian Agricultural Income Stability program and AgriInvest has elements of the disbanded Net Income Stabilization Account program.
But agriculture minister Gerry Ritz does not want those programs to be much of a factor in farmer business planning. He’s not interested in making them more lucrative.
He wants to create market opportunities and let the “competitive” farmers prosper.
If he wanted to create some light between positions and offer an alternative, Ignatieff could craft a platform that offered farmers more supportive policies, more robust programs and a return to government as an interventionist agent to support farmers in dealings with more powerful market forces.
With a spotty record on some of these issues in the past, this conversion could be a hard sell. And farmers might reject it.
But at least it would offer rural and farm voters a clear alternative.
What do Liberals have to lose?