Michael Ignatieff, Canada’s newly-minted Opposition leader, got his job because the country, the media, and the party perceived his predecessor as weak and ineffective.
The question now arises, should the Liberals go back to that barrel of leadership contenders, and see what else they can scrape off the bottom?
Ignatieff is a tall man. He has a fairly large chin, a gruff voice, and the ability to strut, posture and be manly for the cameras. During a leadership race, or even a leadership stroll to the finish line, these things are of the greatest importance.
The erstwhile Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, was nether tall nor large of chin. His voice was soft and he wore spectacles, and whenever he poked his little chin out for the cameras, he just looked silly. It didn’t help matters that he genuinely was a weak leader, and of a seriously weakened party.
Dion demonstrated his own and his party’s weakness by repeatedly backing away from Harper’s I-dare-you confidence motions, and either supporting or refraining from voting on a succession of Conservative budgets. Now that Ignatieff has had a chance to prove himself, we discover that in matters of policy he’s no stronger than Dion was. If anything, his reaction to the Harper-Flaherty budget was softer than we might have expected from the supposedly weak-kneed Dion.
Here is some of what the tough-talking Ignatieff has to say about last week’s budget: “It extends EI benefits but doesn’t extend eligibility. It opens the door for attacks on pay equity for women. It provides no new child-care spaces…. It attaches strings to infrastructure projects that may delay projects and delay job creation. It promises to sell government assets for cash at bargain basement prices but doesn’t say which assets and for how much….”
Hey, sounds great, Ignatieff. Sounds like just the kind of budget you would want to pass without amendments. It’s OK though, Ignatieff knows how to get tough. He’s put the government “on probation,” by proposing a single amendment to the budget: one that requires the Conservatives to give themselves a regular report card. Any predictions on how many failing grades they get?
The Conservatives’ sniggering over the terms of their probation was audible all the way out here in Whitehorse. But it only got louder when Ignatieff found himself holding the thorny end of the Newfoundland problem.
Stephen Harper had an axe to grind with Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador. The ever pugnacious Williams—himself a Conservative—campaigned against Harper in the last election, and won. Not a single federal Conservative represents Newfoundland today. Harper got his revenge by slicing a reported .5 billion out of transfer payments to the province.
Facing a rebellion among his Newfoundland MPs, who were deeply opposed to the cuts, Ignatieff backed down again, permitting the Newfoundland Liberals a “symbolic” vote against the budget. Here’s Ignatieff again in his own words: “After much discussion of this issue with my colleagues from Newfoundland and Labrador I decided to permit them in the budget vote … a one-time vote of protest to signal their displeasure and my displeasure at these unilateral actions, which in my view weaken our federation.”
Here we must assume that Ignatieff is speaking of the federation of provinces and territories we call Canada. So how does a strong opposition leader express his displeasure at a budget which threatens to weaken the Canadian federation? Why, he passes it without amendments of course. But he does so in a gruff voice, with his chin shoved straight out at the cameras, so he won’t look weak.
It’s only going to work for so long, Ignatieff. Eventually, even Liberals are going to notice that you have frittered away all the advantage gained by Dion and the coalition, and returned the party to the status of a parliamentary rubber-stamp. It’s only a matter of time before the rejuvenated Conservatives start getting in your face with the same tactics that defeated Dion.
There’s still a chance Ignatieff will be prime minister some day. Harper is an obvious dud to all but the most dedicated Conservatives, and many of those are deeply alienated by what they perceive as a big-government, big-spending budget. Furthermore, Ignatieff remains a tall man, like all our recent prime ministers. His chin remains strong, his voice remains gruff. Voters may yet choose the illusion of strength over the reality.
Tall as he is, straight as he stands, Marlboro Mike Ignatieff has so far exhibited no signs of a political spine. Stephane Dion must be shaking his head, and wondering how he ended up on the sidelines so soon after taking his first strong stand on anything.
Oh well, that’s showbiz.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes,
is available in bookstores.