Ignatieff: our kinda folks?

January 22nd, 2009
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Some commentators have made much of the similarities in personality between Prime Minister Harper and the new Liberal leader, going so far as to suggest the next election will be a battle of the eggheads. While aspects of this are true, there are some significant differences between the men, which may assume importance in the next campaign.

Fundamentally it comes back to the debate over the Tim Horton’s/Starbucks, elite vs. middle class-driven political agenda. If there is any doubt on which side of this great divide each man stands, it will likely become clearer over the coming months.

The Prime Minister has been portrayed as a hockey dad, which has been a little tough to criticize because he actually is a hockey dad. His opponents have taken pains to dismantle Mr. Harper’s “common man” image, essentially arguing that, because he is academically accomplished and a successful politician he, by definition can’t be “average” and must therefore have little regard for the common man. Can’t fault them for trying to make an elitist out of him I guess. It does serve- their political interest – even if the PM’s entire background contradicts their argument.

It’s worth recalling the now seemingly distant experience of the Reform Party, which was judged beyond the pale by all right-thinking Canadians for its entire political lifespan. This was ostensibly due to un-Canadian policies the party supported, primarily social conservative ones, but also in the area of democratic reform (e.g. citizens’ initiatives, referenda and recall). In fact the media were keenly watching the 2005 Conservative convention to ensure that all these nasty ideas were expunged from the policy book (as compared to say the entirely reasonable and moderate Bloc Quebecois policy book).

So, part of the media analysis over the last 20 years has been to determine whether aspects of Canadian conservatism were socially acceptable, or whether these people would “destroy Canada”, as was the prevailing opinion in higher circles until at least 2006. There is another, broader, social element. Call it elite/populist; whatever. It was the commonly held belief that, along with the “wrong” type of views and values, Reform Party supporters and to an extent Mike Harris Tories simply weren’t “our type of people”.

It was perhaps a mini, Great White Northern version of the culture wars. I can quote a current opinion page editor at a national newspaper recalling an editorial board meeting in the early nineties with Preston Manning and Stephen Harper. She said “You know, I was kind of expecting them to have straw sticking out of their hair, but they turned out to be quite smart, articulate guys.” Needless to say, the meeting was held in Toronto.

Without getting into a full-blown take down of Canada’s central Canadian elite (think Wile E. Coyote), or rather how they like to see themselves, let’s return to Mr. Ignatieff. The issue is perhaps simpler with him. He’s a patrician, an aristocrat. And if you want to be an aristocrat, you may as well have been a Russian, with serfs and the whole nine yards.

What’s surprising is that, despite a certain air of noblesse oblige, Mr. Ignatieff easily slips into overt reminders of his position and accomplishments. The other day, when asked how the Liberals might work with President Obama’s team, he said (I paraphrase) “Well, I taught with a number of his advisors, so that shouldn’t be a problem.” Certainly, the Globe and Mail doesn’t hesitate to remind readers of his pedigree either. In an article anticipating Mr. I’s nth book, the Globe mentions that his uncle (on his mother’s side of course) was George Grant, the famous Canadian philosopher.

My back-handed reference to Mr. Ignatieff the author should not be taken the wrong way. It simply underscores another difference with Mr. Harper – the path to leadership. While Mr. I follows, perhaps a little too deliberately, the path of Trudeau – a “wise man”, “lured” in – Mr. Harper’s political pedigree is much more similar to Jean Chretien’s. While Mr. I was authoring those many books, Mr. Harper was battling up from the political bottom, then back from the regional boondocks, to become Prime Minister.

This contrast cannot be sharper. If you subscribe to the Philosopher King model of government, then Mr. Ignatieff appears literally born for the role. Mr. Harper, certainly an intellectual and having a considerable Canadian pedigree himself (well into the 18th century), is undeniably different. As a proud member of the great unwashed, I think I who’s my kinda folks.

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By John Weissenberger