Saturday, July 30, 2005

Ignatieff as Liberal Leader

There has been some media speculation that Michael Ignatieff might return to Canada to run for Parliament as a Liberal with the idea that he could replace Paul Martin as Liberal leader in a few years when the current PM retires.

The metaphorical comparison is to Pierre Trudeau, a Quebec academic/intellectual who then went on to have a long and ultimately successful career as Prime Minister. My impression is that there may be some substance to the speculation - Ignatieff did address the Liberal Convention in March so the connection is there.

What might be his prospects? He is not listed in the top rank of possible candidates by Calgary Grit Рa somewhat Chr̩tien leaning Liberal - although his name does appear further down.

A major drawback for Ignatieff is that he supports Bush’s Iraq war, which is unpopular in Canada, especially so in Quebec. However, it may not matter if the war is over by the time the Liberal leadership opens up.

Ignatieff is a strong critic of ethnic nationalism like Trudeau but as a non-Quebecker, in a weak position to carry the debate in Quebec. I have no idea how strong his French is.

Pierre Trudeau was a world traveller but he never left Canada to live abroad. As an intellectual he was continuously active in Quebec politics Рpublishing Cit̩ Libre, speaking to strikers in Asbestos, etc. He was very much tuned into Quebec politics, and after entering electoral politics and winning the Liberal leadership, he subsequently dominated federal elections in Quebec. I think his biography looks quite different from that of Ignatieff when one looks closely.

In fact Trudeau is more admired now than when he was in office, and the clouding of memory by time obscures the fact that he was by no means an unqualified political success. For example, Trudeau’s first term was a disaster resulting in the near loss of 1972, and he never did win back to back electoral majorities.

Electoral politics is very demanding and leaders have to be attuned to local sensitivities everywhere. One of the incidents that hurt John Kerry in last year’s U.S. election happened in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He called the football stadium there Lambert Field rather than Lambeau Field. Similar hazards would confront Mr. Ignatieff. If you haven’t lived in Canada for 30 years you are at a great disadvantage. Would Ignatieff know that Shania Twain is from Timmins or that Winnipeg used to have an NHL franchise called the Jets?

That fact that he is being touted is partly a reflection of the undue obsession of our Ottawa media with the politics of personality and leadership, but also of the fact that the Liberals have a dearth of quality successors to Paul Martin.

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