The Commons: Michael Ignatieff and the herd

The early reviews are in and Ignatieff is a disaster

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. The early reviews are in and Michael Ignatieff is a disaster. A blight upon our democracy. A threat, no less, to the very notion of this nation we hold dear. Ottawa, it is safe to say, is unimpressed.

“Just who is running the Liberal caucus?” begged the Globe and Mail’s editorial board this morning, thoroughly perplexed at Mr. Ignatieff’s decision to let half a dozen Liberal MPs from Newfoundland vote of their own volition. “Whether or not this proves to be a ‘one-time pass,’ as Mr. Ignatieff has claimed, it could have far-reaching consequences for him, for his party, and potentially for the country.”

“I think it’s a total lack of leadership,” concurred Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, he of nearly two decades in Ottawa.

“It can be described lots of ways but it can’t really be described as leadership,” scolded the NDP’s Jack Layton, speaking from his 26 years of political experience.

“Certainly,” chirped baby-faced Conservative Pierre Poilievre, a keen student of this stuff, “Prime Minister Harper is a strong leader and you’ll notice that his caucus is unanimous in voting with him. I think that is the mark of a strong leader.”

Anonymous Liberals were said to be perplexed. The men on the CTV nightly news were positively aghast, shocked at the Liberal leader’s unprecedented decision to emasculate himself so publicly.

Trying to grasp the sheer enormity of Mr. Ignatieff’s misstep, the Globe consulted professor Tom Flanagan, a former associate of Mr. Harper’s and, consequently, a man intimately familiar with the mystical qualities that make one a proper leader of men. ”It is a sign of weakness in the brutal world of politics,” the professor concluded. ”Harper, would never do something similar.”

No doubt Mr. Ignatieff thought that last bit a compliment. But then he and the herd don’t know quite what to do with each other.

The problem with the cliche of a herd mentality in this place is is that it’s regularly applicable. A visit to the House of Commons foyer after Question Period demonstrates as much—small gatherings of humanity and technology clustering around microphones and politicians for reasons that are often unclear to even those involved. Yesterday, it was Denis Coderre who the herd deemed particularly relevant. Today, it was Maxime Bernier who suddenly found himself surrounded. At the opposite end of the room, Stephane Dion passed unnoticed.

Since taking over his party, Ignatieff has not so far made a regular habit of coming here after Question Period. (The herd has been left to make do with Bob Rae, a man who suns himself in the TV lights like a teenage girl at the beach.) Instead, the Liberal leader has been content to stand in the House each day at 2:15pm and ask his questions in an even, if stern, tone, keeping his accusations and unflattering analogies to a minimum. “What specific measures,” he asked today, “is the government taking in Washington to ensure that Canada does not lose product mandates, production jobs and assembly line capacity when the U.S. government and U.S. industry finalize the rescue package for their industry?”

Mr. Harper has so far been compelled to match Mr. Ignatieff’s manner. “Our officials are in touch with their counterparts in treasury and in the U.S. government each and every day,” the Prime Minister responded to the above question, “and I would be happy to provide the leader of the opposition with briefs on that, if he so desires.”

It is customary here for all sides to wildly applaud their respective leaders in these exchanges, but the Liberals seemed unsure what to do at the conclusion of Ignatieff’s question and the Conservatives seemed equally puzzled by the Prime Minister’s rejoinder.

The proceedings picked-up from there. Liberal Frank Valeriote stood and deemed the Industry Minister a “flat tire.” Someone was accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. A couple cabinet ministers invoked the dreaded coalition. The Conservatives jumped to their feet to cheer at every other opportunity.

“Mr. Speaker,” Layton said, “my question is really for the leader of the new coalition in the House between the Conservative Party and the Liberals.”

Sitting back in his seat, leaning on his right elbow, Mr. Ignatieff rolled his eyes.

Ken Dryden got up and launched into a rant about child care. ”Mr. Speaker, it is the Prime Minister’s self-proclaimed political genius; give the public what it wants even if it does not get it,” Dryden began. “Reality is not the program itself, it is the announcement. But then for the Prime Minister this pesky economic crisis ruined everything. Now program money actually needs to be spent. People need services. Because of our budget announcement the Prime Minister now has to report that he is actually doing what he said he would do. The Leader of the Opposition realized that somebody, somebody has to act like a prime minister. For three years, why has the Prime Minister not?”

Ignatieff appeared slightly uncomfortable with the question.

Mark Holland stood and accused the government of shaming Bill Casey. ”Mr. Speaker, free speech and the right to oppose government is vital to any democracy. Yet the Prime Minister seeks to crush it, to punish it at every turn: most recently using the budget as an instrument of revenge against a particular province, now Conservative operatives pushing a bogus investigation to destroy a former member of their caucus who dared to speak his mind. It seems there are no limits,” he said. “Will the Prime Minister apologize to the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada and uphold the reputation of this good and decent man?”

Ignatieff did not seem to find this particularly inspiring.

He remained in his seat for the rest of the hour, listening with obvious interest to the other exchanges and then to a procedural debate over whether or not the Natural Resources Minister should table some document or another. Not until a Conservative member stood and accused Mr. Duceppe of calling someone a “chicken,” did the Liberal leader take his leave.

Out in the foyer, the herd descended on Mr. Bernier. A discussion ensued as to whether or not Mr. Duceppe had, in addition to comparing someone to poultry, also gestured impolitely with one of his fingers.

That Mr. Ignatieff did not arrive to register his opinion on the matter will surely only reinforce the herd’s assessment that he is not of this place.

The Stats. Child care, six questions. The auto industry, nuclear safety and aerospace, four questions each. The forestry industry, the environment, arts funding, Quebec culture, the RCMP and government assets, two questions each. Trade, corporate salaries, the elderly, the inappropriate use of email, Bill Casey, Omar Khadr, bilingualism, the livestock industry and avian flu, one question each.

Diane Finley, eight answers. Stephen Harper, six answers. Lisa Raitt and Tony Clement, five answers each. James Moore, three answers. Josee Verner, Vic Toews, Jim Flaherty, Peter Van Loan and Gerry Ritz, two answers each. Lawrence Cannon, one answer.

The Commons: Michael Ignatieff and the herd

  1. It’s not that the G&M disses Ignatieff. It’s just that they really hate Danny.

  2. “The herd has been left to make due with Bob Rae” – I think you meant “make do with Bob Rae”.

  3. Heaven forbid

    M.P. s actually get to vote for their constituency – shame on Michael.

    All hail the Harper regime!

    • Theirs being a constituency of one: Danny Williams.

    • Obviously you don’t understand our political system in Canada. We elect MPs who are members of a particular political party. They are not independents. Allowing MPs to vote in any manner on any issue will result in chaos for that party. Voters are not monolithic. Very seldom is there a consensus on any particular issue. Hence no political party gets 50%+ in any election.
      The job of any political leader is to assess a particular issue, decide what’s in the best interest of the country and of course the party. That means making decisions that are not always popular with some of his MPs. However, they need to show discipline so that they can convince the public they are an alternative to the government.
      So Iggy has failed his first real test of being a political leader and it is going to haunt him in spades as time goes by.

      • You are correct, hollinm. Our political system is all about a balance between that ‘delegate’ factor and the ‘representative’ factor. The delegate factor goes into the party (coming from individual and regional voices), so that the party can come up collectively with a vision for the country, which vision is than brought forward by means of the ‘representative’ factor. MP’s perform both roles. In and out.

        When the party votes on a motion of confidence, such as it was, the party members are not there to speak their minds to protect their particular regions, but are there to vote in accordance with the party’s vision of the country. Mr.Ignatieff does not have a good grip on the difference betweeen ‘delegate’ and ‘representative’.

        But then again, when leaders are appointed and not having to go through a party election process, a lot of what the ‘delegates’ want to express, is left out of the equation, therefore the balance was pulled out of whack much earlier, mainly because of the lack of a leadership election.

        But in that case, Mr.Ignatieff takes on an interesting view as well. He seemed to have been of the opinion that the ‘circumstances’ had lead the party to appointing a leader rather than electing one, but Mr.Ignatieff conveniently forgets to mention, that the circumstances were largely as a result of LIberal in house actions.

        • I believe that Me Ignatieff has made a sensibile decision in that his party did not fully agree with the budget. This was an oppertunity to do two things.First , to show somw disapproval.. second, to support the effort of Newfoundland and Labrador to support the Liberal Party of Canada. I see this as a great move. The NL MPs were given the right to vote as they did. This was not a revolt.

  4. You know, I am gradually warming to Iggy. I don’t like his mid-Atlantic accent, the bony finger, the patrician pedigree, but I am reading the Russian Album, his memoir on family history, and it is searching and unguarded in a degree I didn’t think possible. Which is a long way from Newfoundland and equalization, I’ll agree, but it is possible that this man is more emotionally generous and intellectually flexible than we are used to, certainly in the hopeless slum that is competitive politics..

    • That’s very well put. It is a hopeless slum — and what’s disturbing is that the media is beginning to sound like American media — either/or. I think the G&M has gone right downhill by hiring Flanagan to write for them; I’ve always thought in the past that the G&M was so detached and analytical, but then I haven’t read it for quite a while. Just beginning to again – and I certainly wouldn’t subscribe to it based on what I’ve been reading.

      Politics is getting nastier in Canada, and dumber.

      I liked this article – puts a few things in perspective.

      • About the recent jabs at Ignatieff; I don’t understand why flexibility can’t be seen as an act of leadership. To be a leader takes more than to simply say “do what I tell you or else…”. Frankly, I respect that he allowed the Newfoundland and Labrador MPs to vote for their constituents. It allowed them to act in their best interest, while the remainder of the Liberal Party, still having the numbers to secure passage of the budget, could act in the country’s best interest (I know, that’s debatable too). Really, it seems like skilled leadership to me.

        Flanagan is right, Harper never would have allowed that, which is precisely why he has never and will never earn a majority government, because people respect the appearance of flexibility in their leaders.

    • I’m not sure if I’m warming to Ignatieff, or if Harper is turning me off. Either way, I’m going to suggest that in the first public test of his leadership, Ignatieff might have found a stronger response than to dither.

  5. Question for Aaron:

    Just where do you place yourself in this herd? Front and center, or scooping up the rear?

  6. Great post Aaron. I particularly liked the Rae sunning himself like a teen-age girl in front of the cameras. Duceppes crack about lack of leadership was priceless, delivered without a trace of irony or shame, i’m sure.

  7. Iggy who?

    • Doubleagent – I fully agree. Its refreshing to see some give and take. I somehow can’t accept the notion that Canadians are realists who only respect Harper’s bunker-organization, and look down on Iggie for giving the protest vote. I look forward to the future if this is the type of interesting plays we’re going to see from Iggie.

  8. As a rule, I find doing the opposite of whatever the Globe and Mail editorial board wants me to do serves me very well.

    • They’re jealous cus nobody lets them have a column of their own.

  9. “The herd has been left to make due with Bob Rae” – I think you meant “make do with Bob Rae”.

    I think you meant “make doo-doo with Bob Rae”.

  10. “The early reviews are in and Michael Ignatieff is a disaster. A blight upon our democracy. A threat, no less, to the very notion of this nation we hold dear.”

    Who said he’s a blight upon our democracy? His critics are saying he’s a disaster as the leader of a national party because he can’t keep his caucus under control. Asking thoughtful questions of the government is good but we need to know that this guy can make tough decisions that are in the national interest that may ruffle the feathers of his own caucus or supporters. Presumably Ignatieff wants to actually run this country someday rather than merely ask thoughtful questions.

  11. I agree, well written Aaron. Unlike the Globe piece, you’ve inserted the appropriate spoonful of caustic cynicism along with clever dash of sarcasm that will confound us partisans of either leaning.
    Funny how quickly the yokels have swivelled, almost bald-faced, to scold the newbie Liberal leader. Going from one story that essentially said ‘Ignatieff got it right’ to calling him out as a limp leader of laggards seems too much a sport; not when the so-called leader across the way has spat, crapped and generally puked on all of his own principles, constituents, and the members of the media who deem it their duty to cover such folly.
    Flanagan and cohorts are playing with the media like a two-year-old with a new tonka truck. Can’t wait to see how Kinsella counters.

    • Yeah, let’s bring Kinsella into this tangled web we weave! Makes for interesting meals…….

  12. I think herd mentality better describes the Ignatieff love-in during his honeymoon period…which is wearing off now that decisions have to be made.

  13. Leave it to the Tom Flanagans and Pierre Poilievres to be our moral compass in determining what leadership is.

  14. Now turn the clock back to the Martin days – when Harper and his Conservatives were having a fit because the governement whipped its MINISTERS to vote on a government-sponsored legislation (if anyone knows of a parliamentary democracy where such cabinet solidarity is not a practice, please let me know). The vote on same sex marriage legislation was deemed to have been antidemocratic enough that it warranted an electoral promise and the holding of a free votes on a motion.

    That a government votes as one is a fundamental of all parliamentary systems, as far as I know. That a government whips its caucus on a confidence matter is customary. But as far as I know, the budget vote is not a confidence motion on the opposition. Members should be allowed to vote freely. What I don’t understand is that some are whipped (I read Quebec LPC MPs were whipped) while the MPs from Nfld were not.

  15. Clarence (“The herd has been left to make due with Bob Rae” – I think you meant “make do with Bob Rae”.
    Perhaps not. After all this is the Canadian media and Rae is a Liberal; it is quite likely in their normal exchange of favours it is time to collect what is “due” in exchange for the services rendered. A Freudian slip rather than a spelling error?

  16. Take a mental snapshot of Iggy asking questions in a quiet, thoughtful manner. Compare it to the spectacle of Dion attempting to place against his natural mien and do the outraged politician act. It looks to me like someone has been reading Paul Wells’ rules of politics: Act as though you are already in the position to which you aspire. If you want to be PM, act like one.

  17. It’s a bit hard to mug someone with a butterknife.

    • You forgot the part where the Mouse comes back to gnaw on the Lion’s pudenda while he’s sleeping.

    • I agree all parts of this country should be treated fairly.

      But did you include in your fairness ledger the lion’s transfer payments for fifty years?

      • You’re right, it makes a lot more sense the eighth time you read it.

      • sure are a lot of ponds out that neck of the woods!

  18. Remember when people like Harper, Poilievre, and Flanagan were all about free votes? When they thought the Liberals should be ashamed of all that unanimous voting? Good times!

  19. Iggy needs to do something with Mark Holland and his type that have infested the Liberal caucus. Holland cannot ask a question on policy. His job is to malign the government and particularly the PM. However, people do not fall for this b.s. and simply ignore what he is saying. Maybe Holland has potential but somebody should take him out behind the woodshed and pound some sense into him.
    Focus on policy. The same with Dryden and his fixation on childcare. The public has rejected this socialist policy and no matter how times the Libs talk about it a real childcare program is too expensive and is not what the vast majority of Canadians are interested in. Talk about being a one dimensional policitican that Ken Dryden has turned out to be.

    • How many times (when in power, no less) did the LIberal Party promise to bring in an expanded daycare righ across this country? How many times? Anyone with their memory in tact, cause Dryden’s memory is too far fetched.

  20. Hmmm….just thinking – if Ignatieff had “whipped” his caucus on this – I bet the media, Harper, Flanigan and especially Layton would attack him on that.

  21. How many “first tests of leadership” are we up to now with Ignatieff? 5? 6?

    • I think it’s rather refreshing to see some standards attached to questioning leadership. Ignatieff will get used to the drill. Harper has done his share of push-ups.

  22. Well done! I would like a recap everyday.

  23. I have no problem with what Ignatieff did for a couple of reasons:

    (a) The Liberals elected in NL got a big boost from Williams’ ABC campaign the last election. In effect the Liberals owed him one.

    (b) Newfoundlanders feel very strongly about the equalization issue. In effect the MPs were simply being responsive to their constituents which is something that MPs are supposed to do

    (c) Greater parliamentary democracy and less of MPs-as-trained-seals is something that all Canadians should welcome. Yes, you have to balance that out with the need for discipline, but its a BALANCE not a case of always deferring to the prerogatives of the Leader.

    All in all I thought Ignatieff handled the whole thing well. I think the criticism says more about his critics than about him.

    • To add
      “D” The liberals really did not like the total budget , so this was an oppertunity to show that too.

  24. Jean Proulx I total agree with your comment of having less MPs that are ” trained seals.” They are there to represent the people, yes they are par tof a praty but if representation dissappears then the infdividuals that make up this society dissappear.

    There are some aspects of government that shouldn’t fall pray to business strategy and representation must come before discipline.

    Iggy is showing true leadership. Right now the discipline Harper commands is needed, but there will be times when representation is an absolute necessity.

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