Michael Ignatieff wants a Liberal election platform ready by June. But the newly confirmed Liberal leader insists that shouldn't be taken as a sign that he's planning to topple Stephen Harper's minority government before the summer.
"I've told my people I want a platform in June," he said at a news conference Sunday, one day after his official coronation.
"And don't derive electoral timetables from that," he hastily added. "You asked me a question, I'm giving you an answer. I'm not playing games with you."
Still, in an interview later, Ignatieff acknowledged that the possibility of a spring election does have something to do with his instructions.
"I won't duck the question of election timing. I mean, who knows what we're heading into, to be frank?" he told The Canadian Press. "As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared."
While he wants a platform ready to help impose some "message discipline" and put some "got good solid ground under my feet," Ignatieff said it won't be released publicly until some time shortly before an election.
Some Liberals, including former prime minister Jean Chretien, are urging Ignatieff to pull the plug on Harper's Tories as soon as possible, taking advantage of the Liberals' newfound momentum in opinion polls as economic turmoil takes it toll on the government.
But Ignatieff, who says he's gleaned from his cross-country travels that Canadians don't want an election now, insisted he's still committed to making Parliament work, if possible.
If there does turn out to be an election trigger this spring, it may well be Employment Insurance reform.
Ignatieff intends to unveil "very shortly" a Liberal proposal to move to a national standard for qualifying for EI — "something in the range of 360" hours of work over the past 52 weeks — rather than the 54 different regional rates that apply currently.
He said that would be a temporary measure to see jobless Canadians through the economic crisis. But once the economy recovers, Liberals would still want a national — if somewhat higher — standard to apply.
"It strikes Canadians as unfair that if you pay into the thing, your eligibility depends on where you live."
Ignatieff denied suggestions he's setting up a showdown over EI, but nevertheless alluded to the potential for an election over the issue.
"I'm not looking for confrontation here... If the government has the national interest in mind, I think we can do the business together. If not, then we'll be in another situation.
"If we can't make (Parliament) work, then the people will have to sort it out."
Election timing isn't entirely in Ignatieff's hands. All three opposition parties would have to join forces to bring down the government and, as Liberal fortunes have risen, the NDP and Bloc Quebecois have lost interest in going quickly to the polls.
After months of voting non-confidence in the government at every opportunity, both the NDP and the Bloc are now signalling a willingness to work with the Tories on a number of fronts, including EI reform.
Ignatieff, who's come under mounting pressure to start revealing more precisely where he wants to lead the country, said the platform will be concise and fully-costed.
It will include measures aimed at providing immediate relief from the recession. But, more broadly, he said it will lay out an agenda for turning Canada into a "knowledge society" by its 150th birthday in 2017.
As outlined in his acceptance speech Saturday, his learning strategy will include investments in aboriginal education, literacy programs, post-secondary education, scientific research and child care.
"People are asking me my platform. You ought to be asking what the government is doing here," Ignatieff said at his news conference.
"This is a visionless and directionless government, more preoccupied with its own survival than giving Canadians a vision for the future. I've got a vision that'll take us to 2017."
Ignatieff said he wants the country "to bet the store, bet everything we've got, on what we've got between our brains."
The emphasis on learning seems designed, at least in part, to counter Tory attempts to depict Ignatieff as an out-of-touch academic elitist — in effect, to make an asset out of what the Tories are trying to portray as a liability.
The former Harvard professor said his academic background has certainly shaped his thinking about what the country needs.
"I've been a teacher a lot of my life," he said in the interview Sunday. "I've seen what happens when the lights go on. You just see it in a kid's eyes."
His learning strategy is not "ivory tower stuff at all," he said. Rather, he's talking about making sure aboriginal kids finish high school, providing language training for immigrants and skills training for laid-off blue collar workers.
"I'm talking education that just goes right into the whole tissue of our national life and informs everything we do. And above all, right some wrongs. The only way I've ever seen that you can right a wrong in this country is to educate someone."
Asked if he'd like to be remembered as the learning prime minister, Ignatieff replied: "I'd love it."
Sometime this summer or fall, Ignatieff said he also intends to hold a "thinkers' conference" that will address some of the "big long-term questions" facing the country over the next 25 years, going well beyond the more immediate scope of the campaign platform.
Joan Bryden reports for The Canadian Press.