Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Ignatieff Factor

Going into the 2006 Liberal leadership race, I bought into the party and journalistic hype and cheered on Michael Ignatieff as the front-runner - an academic, an adequate speaker, and most importantly a person whose name was not Paul Martin. That was, until I discussed the matter with my politically inclined brother and sister, who threw their weight behind the "dark horse" of the race, Stephane Dion. Dion went on to win his 2006 leadership bid, coming from behind to overtake both Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario premier Bob Rae.

Dion, who seemed a capable and honest intellectual, proved inadequate on the political front lines - allowing his public image to be tarnished by his poor Anglo-articulation and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's relentless attack advertisements. Two years, one massive election defeat, and one damning televised address later, Dion's leadership has kicked the bucket for good. With Michael Ignatieff having slipping into the position of Liberal interim (likely soon to be permanent) leader, the question that once again rears its head is - who exactly is he?

In 2006, when I first asked this question, I didn't know. In 2008, with Ignatieff heading up one of Canada's preeminent political parties, it seems important to find out. Ignatieff is a celebrated intellectual. Toronto-born, he was educated at the University of Toronto (where he was roommates with Bob Rae), Oxford, and Harvard University. He is fluently bilingual, has written 16 books (one of which won the non-fiction Governor General's award), and taught at Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford before becoming Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Sounds pretty sweet, right?

There are reasons aplenty, however, to view Ignatieff with some suspicion. For starters, he's spent most of his adult life outside of Canada - in the UK and United States. He has been criticized for having adopted an American identity, referring to "we Americans" in various addresses and writings - once declaring "Being an American is not easy." He originally supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq as well as so-called "soft-torture" methods of interrogation such as sleep deprivation. Through what may be considered a conspiracy of elite Toronto MP's, he was rapidly recalled to Canada and parachuted into government, being handed the easy Liberal riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, which he won in a by-election following then-Liberal leader Paul Martin's departure. He was maneuvered to quickly become the front-runner in the 2006 Liberal leadership race, despite having just recently returned to the motherland after decades abroad. This left many with the question: Is Michael Ignatieff Canadian enough to run Canada?

This is not the only reason to doubt, however. While Ignatieff has spent the last two year amassing political experience, and has proved a quick study, he has failed - in this modest writer's opinion - to demonstrate the integrity of either former leadership rival Bob Rae or former Liberal leader Stephane Dion (though he's far more traditional than Harper's style of compulsive lying and ultra-aggressive tendencies).

When he lost his leadership bid in 2006, his role - and the role of all Liberals - should have been to support their new leader and begin the process of rebuilding the party. However, Ignatieff kept his leadership team together, and refrained from making overt gestures of support for Dion. My sister-in-law recalled an interview with Ignatieff in Quebec during the 2008 election campaign where he said, "I support Canada and I support the Liberal party." But when pressed as to whether he supported Dion, Ignatieff replied hesitantly to the effect of, "I respect Mr. Dion." With party wounds from the leadership race left wide open instead of mended, the Liberals entered their most pitiful and lethargic election campaign ever. It was almost as if they were playing to lose and Ignatieff was waiting for Dion to fall so that he could swoop in for his crown. Though he still smiled and commended Dion in public, Ignatieff's ambitions seemed to be brewing just below the surface.

Following Parliament's prorogation just recently, heavy pressure was applied for Dion to step down as leader of the Liberal party immediately, paving the way for a new leader to be installed. Bob Rae, Ignatieff's major leadership rival, insisted that the party as a whole should select the new leader. Michael Ignatieff preferred to poll only elected MP's and the party elite. Ignatieff won out. Bob Rae, well aware that Ignatieff had the support of the majority of Liberal MP's and senate members, gracefully bowed out of the race in the name of party unity rather than pressing the issue and creating a whirlwind of intra-party conflict at the grassroots level. The expidited selection of Ignatieff as party leader by the party's old garde was widely criticized as a "coronation" and objectionably undemocratic.

Despite the questions that continue to swirl with regards to Iggy's character, however, he may be just what the Liberals need - and they know it. He is fluently bilingual, and he is popular in Quebec and BC where Dion was remarkably weak. He is a quick learner. He is intelligent, articulate, and tough as nails. In fact, when asked if he was worried about being the victim of vicious character assassination by the Conservatives, as Dion was, he replied: "It would seem to me to be a very, very serious mistake to engage in partisan attacks against a party leader at this moment." Then added, "I hope I make myself clear." It was a bold ultimatum.

Most importantly, Canadians seem ready to accept Ignatieff. Just two days after Ignatieff assumed the Liberal leadership, polls showed that Liberal support had jumped to a virtual tie with the Conservatives. 28% of Canadians felt that Ignatieff would make the best head of state, whereas only 27% of Canadians felt the same about Harper. That said, another poll indicated that if an election was held today, Harper would win a sweeping majority (the very scary prospect which first prompted me to blog about politics) - proof that Canadians are not keen to see the government fall so soon after the last election.

While I approved of Stephane Dion as a person, and have my reservations about Michael Ignatieff, it seems that Iggy may inject the much needed strength that the Liberals need. Canadians and the Liberal party are ready to embrace Ignatieff in a way they could not Dion. For his part, Ignatieff will be more than willing to oblige them. He's been planning his ascent to Prime Minister for 15 years - and he is a man who knows what it takes to achieve his goals.

As a child, when his younger brother joined him at Toronto's Upper Canada College (UCC), an esteemed boys school, he warned, "When we're at Aunt Helen's house or Aunt Charity's house, you can say whatever you want to me. But if you ever see me on the school grounds, you're not to talk to me. You're not to recognize that I'm your brother. You don't exist as far as I'm concerned. Do I make myself clear?"

Ignatieff will likely be a driven and ambitious Liberal leader, which may prove anathema to Stephen Harper. But whether his presence on the stage will be a boon or bane to Canada - history will judge.

1 comment:

sandlot said...

You should run for prime minister. You're much better looking than Ignatieff.