Recently, the Liberal Party’s election march began in a Vancouver basement.
The walls were grey concrete and there was a cold draft coming from the ceiling—but that didn’t sap the warmth greeting Michael Ignatieff at the Liberals recent leadership convention.
Party faithful enthusiastically circled him as he made his way to his seat at the front of the crowd, now holding the more prime ministerial “Michael” signs instead of ones reading “Iggy.”
Ignatieff’s first address as leader wasn’t a make-or-break moment. But it demonstrated his ability to read and respond to a crowd as its leader.
The speech didn’t fall flat, but it didn’t soar either. It was only towards the end that the crowd rose to its feet with any type of spontaneity.
The show hinted at how Ignatieff will brand himself as leader.
He pulled on old chestnuts—peacekeeping and multiculturalism—to define his politics.
The delivery was effective and, at times, vivid—like when he described himself being rescued by a Canadian peacekeeper from New Brunswick while working as a reporter in the former Yugoslavia.
In Canada, learning and knowledge must be the measure of a nation’s opportunity, and it should be available equally to everyone, Ignatieff told conference delegates.
Then he wrapped his thoughts up neatly in a slogan, “The Canadian Way.”
Ignatieff didn’t go any deeper than that. He didn’t address some of the confounding problems with “The Canadian Way,” such as the impracticality of peacekeeping in Afghanistan.
But, at the moment, he might not have to.
During a cab ride after the speech, a young Indian driver could only remember Ignatieff’s mention of “The Canadian Way,” and it sounded like something he’d been longing to hear for a long time.
But Ignatieff’s slogan highlighted a critical issue for the party. While many Liberals believe the Harper government has done serious damage to Canada’s reputation abroad and its function at home, it isn’t clear how Liberal policies will change that.
Instead, during the convention the Liberals turned to the past.
Jean Chretien boasted about his record, and taunted the Conservatives for doing the same. All the grand talk of Canada’s strong economy and the durability of its banks were remnants of his time in office, said Chretien.
The Conservatives had fumbled his rapprochement with China and Canada’s status as a fair and honest voice on the international stage, he said.
But when it came to the present, the Liberals never waded any deeper than the superficial.
There was grand talk the night before of the green economy and Western Canada becoming the economic powerhouse of the country, especially from Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson.
The party resolved to focus more on rural Canada.
There was also a motion to make potable water a human right, an interesting idea for a country that boasts the largest freshwater reserve in the world and where aboriginal communities suffer under boil-water orders.
There was talk of encouraging profit-sharing to boast Canada’s productivity, and a lot of enthusiasm for renewable energy sources and something really vague called “Greening the West.”
But resolutions aren’t hard promises. They have a long way to go before becoming part of the party’s platform, something Ignatieff has put off until June.
Forget the past. Ignatieff now has to lay out “The Canadian Way” for 2009, and beyond.
Unlike US President Barack Obama, he didn’t have to define his vision in the heat of a leadership race. Ignatieff
was acclaimed, handed the crown after Dion’s leadership collapsed after the constitutional crisis last December.
Ignatieff’s newest book, True Patriot Love, showcases a man who has given a lot of thought to what Canada should be.
But he’s relatively inexperienced as a leader, and it’s not known if he can translate these ideas into action.
“(Ignatieff) will do it his own way, everybody recognizes that,” said Chretien in an interview. “He doesn’t have the same experience as me when I started, I had been in politics for 40 years and cabinet for 30 years.”
A leader’s job is to fill the coffers and win elections, Ignatieff has said, simply. Also, he added, a grand Canadian vision is required.
It’s not there yet.
But his remarks at Vancouver’s convention suggest he’s opening the brain trust to draft one.
The convention featured former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and Eric Hoskins, the head of War Child Canada. Smart people, if not public speakers of Chretien’s calibre.
But Ignatieff has chosen these people to inspire the party. He signalled he wants more ideas to rebrand Canada.
The question is whether Ignatieff and his team can take these ideas and mold them into nation-building action.
New money, new technology purchased from the Democratic Party and a new leader seem to have boosted morale.
And while “The Canadian Way” is a bit amorphous, the Liberals seem to be pulling together.
That new optimism began three weeks ago in a basement—which was fitting somehow, given that mere months ago the party suffered it’s worst-ever defeat.
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