Often much is made of the comparison - or rather, the similarity - between the Liberal and Conservative parties, even to the point of talk about merger, however tongue-in-cheek it may be. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle; the two parties are certainly similar in a lot of ways, as is what happens in a polarized electorate constantly fighting over the middle ground. Democracy usually tends to promote the majority/plurality centre, and the successful political parties will follow.
But there are differences, not just in name but also in ideology. Certainly much can be made about the differences between Liberal and Conservative policies in the past, including on free trade, healthcare, foreign policy, religion, and etc. In modern politics, Liberals have tried to distinguish themselves through environmental and economic stewardship, to various success and failure. Recently we've focused on accountability and social issues - how well this works, we shall see.
Personally, one of the best distinctions for me is the ability and willingness of the recent Liberal governments I've followed to make tough, unpopular but beneficial and just decisions, over the Conservative government's lack of response to democratic will and signals, and being forced to even recognize when action is needed.
For example, during Paul Martin's tenure as both Finance Minister and Prime Minister, tough decisions were made. First he had to cut services across the board to pay off the deficit, even though it was both unpopular and unsettling; and then he had to call an inquiry into government spending which ultimately led to the Party's downfall, when he didn't have to and would've gained more benefit if he didn't.
Then we look to our current government, which makes decisions based more on ideology and expedience it seems, whether its being forced by the threat of the coalition to take action on the looming crisis, or the decision to axe arts funding, the long-form census, go back on the Atlantic Accord, prorouging Parliament, twice even...
It just seems to me that Liberals, for all our faults, problems, issues and considerations, are willing to make the tough decisions than the political expediency of the Conservatives. (That isn't to say Conservatives can't make tough decisions; Mulroney's attempt at reinvigorating the constitutional debate was well intentioned and honourable, if a little misguided, and I don't blame him for being proud of what he tried to do.)
If you were never familiar with the two main parties, but you saw the record of the decisions they've made and the standard of dedication they've had to what is both right and just for Canadians, and not just themselves, who would you choose? The Liberals who, yes, have had their arrogant times and some selfish ways, or the Conservatives, who never miss an opportunity to score political points and take an easy way out, or ignore the problem altogether?
Maybe we should look to Ignatieff not as the savior we want him to be, but whether or not he has the willingness to make the tough decisions that we need him to make as Prime Minister, and as Liberal leader. I believe if people had to compare Ignatieff to Harper on that fact alone, we'd be far ahead in majority territory right now.