Taking on the Ignatieff enigma
So that was a pretty good week in politics. We got rid of Stéphane Dion and Mario Dumont. True, we also got Michael Ignatieff ... but we shall see. The departure of Mario Dumont is welcome because he was a walking, talking satire of contemporary politics, including his prolonged masquerade as an alternative to it. Handsome, smooth, politically obsessed since childhood, head of his own breakaway party since age 24, he believed in nothing, passionately. He didn't even know if he was a separatist, let alone where he stood on market economics, social issues or anything else.
He almost won the 2007 election on a wave of popular willingness to try free market reforms in a drastically over-governed province. But at the last minute he found the courage of his lack of convictions, backed off, and tumbled. Now he's gone, squeaking comically about how "there has to be a life after politics." Well, yes, and ideally before it as well.
Mr. Ignatieff got that part right. After a successful career as an annoying student activist, he became a public intellectual, and only returned to politics, and Canada, in his late 50s. The question, though, is what desirable qualities he brings to the job.
Supposedly he is sexy. And one Citizen commentator praised his eyebrows, saying they'd be effective in Question Period. But at the risk of appearing picky, I'm hoping for something a bit more substantial.
Here's the question I want to ask him: Your party has not won a majority with an Anglophone leader since William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1945. I wasn't born then and neither were you. It also hasn't won a majority of seats in Quebec since 1981, which you maybe missed because it was during your nearly three decades abroad. But what, exactly, is it that you've got that will reverse this pattern? Other than cool, ironic brows?
My question does not reflect standard media obsession with political tactics. Rather, to the considerable annoyance of many of us, the Liberal party long defined itself, and won elections, as the party that knew how to keep Quebec happy within Confederation. But the days are long gone when it was enough to get you labelled a statesman if people in English Canada believed, however implausibly, that you appealed to Quebec (or, in Joe Clark's case, if you believed it all by yourself).
For that reason it is disquieting that Mr. Ignatieff doesn't even seem very clear on whether he supports the coalition Mr. Dion foisted upon his hapless party. It's bad enough not to know what he thinks about socialist economics. But surely he has an opinion on separatism.
His hesitation and silence are touted by his supporters as proof of his depth. But they might instead reflect timidity or malleability, especially given that on other important questions like "Is he for or against the Iraq war?" the answer is yes. (Ditto whether or not Israel is guilty of war crimes.) When, indeed, has Mr. Ignatieff ever taken a strong stand against prevailing opinion, or stuck to one when the popular mood changed? Aren't real intellectuals eager to challenge conventional wisdom rather than channel it? Even Pierre Trudeau, hardly the iconoclast the herd of independent minds took him for, staunchly and courageously opposed ethnic nationalism when it was trendy.
So where does Mr. Ignatieff stand on Quebec's place in Canada? It's the core issue raised by this coalition, whose partisans manifestly consider Quebec separatists more legitimate political players than people who despise Quebec separatists. Does Mr. Ignatieff agree, disagree, or need more time to answer the question?
I said months ago that a real Social Democratic Party would be good for our politics. But while such a thing would resemble this coalition in many important ways it would differ in three essentials: a) it would not contain people who want to destroy Canada b) it would be one party with policies, not a coalition with attitudes and c) citizens would be told about it during an election, not afterwards.
Is Mr. Ignatieff prepared to approach his coalition partners including the Bloc to discuss forming such a party? And if they refuse, is he willing to govern with them anyway? The question is not simply a partisan jibe about what happened to the Liberals as the party of national unity. It is a way of seeing whether Mr. Ignatieff is a man of ideas, or just enjoys the reputation.
At least Mr. Dion had his Green Shift. After two years we do not know why Mr. Ignatieff wants to be prime minister. Does he know? Or is he just an older Mario Dumont?
Don't raise an eyebrow at me, sir. It's a fair question, and yours need plucking.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]