More Ignatieff, more of the time

December 15th, 2008
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Given all the excitement last week about the Liberals’ newly anointed leader, I thought I’d quickly provide a few “bonus features” for your perusal. Some of the commentary is surprising, despite the extant mountain of commentary on Michael Ignatieff.

One Globe and Mail story quoted Mr. I. as saying that he wants to “reach out and hope that Western Canadians forgive and forget…”

This is certainly a noble sentiment, something previously expressed by Paul Martin with his usual understatement, along the lines of, “I shall not rest until the West is again a full member…” The problem for these gentlemen is one of numbers. The path of least resistance for the Liberals has been to go where their votes are: chiefly urban central Canada. The policy priorities driven by those demographically large but geographically small regions often have little resonance beyond the last bus stop on the TTC.

Perhaps the most remarkable Ignatieff quote was reproduced in a John Ivison column (which I unfortunately can’t find anymore). I kept the quote because it was so eye-popping: “Liberals believe in sound money, balanced budgets, low taxes, personal responsibility.” Does he perhaps mean classical liberals? But it didn’t sound as if he was pulling the quote from an old set of professor’s poli sci notes.

On another level, it’s a vintage big-L Liberal statement, i.e., it has nothing to do with what Liberals actually believe or how they would govern. It just sounds good right now – or is believed to undercut the enemy. It underscores what we’ve called the Myth of the Blue Liberal  – the phenomenon in which some Liberals say with a straight face things that sound right-of-centre, but are not based in Liberal reality.

Remarkably, the Globe’s Lawrence Martin produced a quite balanced assessment of Mr. Ignatieff last week. Drawing on his (no doubt) impeccable Liberal sources he comes out with this salvo:

He comes to the job with a good many vulnerabilities. Opponents see him as an egghead extraordinaire with insufficient political experience. Having spent 2 1/2 decades out of the country, he has been called a sometimes Canadian. In these fragile economic times, he has little background in economics. He was a big supporter of a carbon tax and backed, however reluctantly, the coalition.

(If you can stomach some real vintage Martin, here’s a brutal tear-down of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.) Other coverage, like that on CTV’s website,  was more typical. Pictured is a 1990s cover of GQ featuring none other than Mr. I, under the headline “Bionic liberal – is he for real?” Well, time will tell.

Of more concern is the surely misdirected optimism of as crusty an observer as that old Moravian Peter C. Newman. He raises the possibility that Mr. Ignatieff will become a “sub-Arctic, WASP Obama who restores the civility, trust and vitality that will steer us back on course.” And what course would that be?

Describing him as “our first post-modern politician” who “cares more for ideas than people”, Mr. Newman suggests Mr. Ignatieff “recognizes that while the essential issues may remain insoluble, they are susceptible to creative improvisation; that while it may be absurd to actualize innovation and basic reforms of Canada’s faltering political system, it’s even more absurd not to try.” That on top of his “fatalistic approach to history as an accumulation of tumbling paradoxes.” Whoa.

If I may translate, he sees Ignatieff as a cure for the cynicism ordinary Canadians have for the political process; the fact that they no longer think they can “improve their lives” through involvement in politics. Not surprisingly, I take a different view.

I was involved with one very significant popular political movement, one in which the public thought it could finally use the political process to improve their lives. That was the Reform Party. Because it was Western and small-c conservative, it was pilloried by the likes of Mr. Newman and his colleagues (and Mr. Ignatieff’s type of people, though he was out of the country for all or most of Reform’s existence).

In my view, Mr. Ignatieff embodies those who have stifled popular political involvement. It seems unlikely that, from their patrician perches, they could figure out how to politically energize the public. If the Reform experience is any indication, the elite will only sanction political engagement it deems acceptable. If the public wants change outside of those bounds, like Senate reform, citizen’s initiatives and referenda for example, they’re out of luck.

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By John Weissenberger