The lower side of politics

One of the oddest stories of the week, which takes some doing, was Michael Ignatieff apparently trying to undermine Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat. I know politics here doesn't stop at the water's edge but tries to shove the other fellow in. Still, this seems weird.

For the record, I'm not objecting because I want us to get a Security Council seat. As I subtly hinted in endorsing the suggestion back in 1999 that the UN be dismantled and hurled brick by brick into the river, I consider it a dangerous organization, less for the generally feeble things it does than for the illusions it fosters among well-meaning Westerners that there is some sort of world government committed to fair play and decency. Wednesday's Citizen said our annual push to censure Iran's human rights record might cost us crucial votes for that Security Council seat which gives you a pretty good idea what really goes on at the UN.

Nor am I complaining from a partisan standpoint that Ignatieff was attempting to undermine Stephen Harper's foreign policy. I grant that, little things like the premature Afghan pullout aside, it has been less objectionable than usual but not sufficiently to command my enthusiastic support. What bothers me is more fundamental: It is not possible to discern what the Liberal leader was trying to do. His remarks simply make no sense on any level.

What he said was "This is a government that for four years has basically ignored the United Nations and now is suddenly showing up saying, 'Hey, put us on the council.' Don't mistake me. I know how important it is for Canada to get a seat on the Security Council but Canadians have to ask a tough question: Has this government earned that place? We're not convinced it has."

Where to start? I for one cannot decipher his contention that Canada has basically ignored the UN for four years. If we had paid more attention to it, what does he think we would have been paying attention to and what would we have done? He has no idea and neither do you.

Next, he says he knows how important it is for Canada to get a seat on the Security Council. I dispute this. What important world issue is not only going to be settled by a Security Council vote in the near future, but settled by a vote so close our ballot will prove decisive? Ridiculous.

I also do not know, when he says he doesn't think we have earned such a seat, what behavior he thinks does qualify a nation for it. (The Council's current non-permanent members are Austria, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Brazil, Gabon, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey and Uganda. You tell me why.)

Nor, finally, can I see what purpose is served by Ignatieff's remarks taken as a whole. He can't really believe they will persuade the "international community" to wait, to pass over Canada until that awful Stephen Harper finally goes away before giving us our seat. And since he maintains the public pose and, I expect, the private belief that he will soon replace Stephen Harper as prime minister, if they do work he'll be depriving himself of the right to appoint and instruct its occupant. To what end?

If, by contrast, he was simply posturing for a domestic audience, convinced that believers in the UN in Canada are generally not believers in Stephen Harper, it is slightly more credible on the face of it. But does he think voters of this high-minded sort will not object to a stand that, whatever its other merits, runs Canada down abroad for partisan advantage at home?

There is much head-scratching and head-shaking nowadays about the relentlessly partisan tone of Canadian politics. Yes, it has always been a tough game. But modern practitioners seem weirdly unable to stop at the venom's edge even in the face of widespread disgust with the shallow nastiness of public discussion; look no further than Jim Flaherty's strangely out-of-place campaign speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa on Tuesday, or the daily horror of Question Period.

Michael Ignatieff himself just told columnist Don Martin that to reform question period, "I don't think changing the rules are as important as changing the atmosphere. It's real simple. I ask a real question and I get a real answer. ... I'm prepared to ask a real question hoping to get a real answer. That's all I can do and the other guy's got to do his bit."

In short, I'm taking the high road unlike my stinking low-down opponent. And that, I feel, is the real explanation of his outburst against Harper and the UN. When they've only got one gear, you don't really have to ask why they're driving in it. Yet it seems out of keeping with what the public wants and Ignatieff's pre-political persona.

How does contemporary politics turn well-meaning, intelligent people into monotonously annoying partisans with such depressing regularity? It's very strange.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson