Ignatieff, from both sides now

He signed on to the coalition—but now it’s a unity threat

Ignatieff, from both sides nowIt is hard to quarrel with Michael Ignatieff’s analysis. Indeed, it’s unassailable. Had the opposition parties succeeded last fall in their plan to oust the Conservatives and form a coalition government in their place, the Liberal leader argues, it would have caused irreparable harm to Canadian unity. The coalition, he told a gathering in Montreal last weekend, would have “profoundly and durably divided the country.”

“There was also a question concerning the legitimacy of the coalition that troubled me,” he confided. While perfectly legal, it would nonetheless have struck many Canadians, coming so soon after an election in which the Liberals had suffered their worst defeat since Confederation, as if they and their coalition partners had “in some sense or another stolen power.”

Moreover, it would have been very difficult to assure the country of the certainty and stability it needed in a time of crisis “with three partners in a formal coalition,” he said, likening it, CP reports, to a rickety three-legged stool. “That was my first doubt. I couldn’t guarantee the long-term stability of the coalition.”

Especially when, as he told an interviewer back in March, one of the partners was a separatist party. “I could be sitting here as your prime minister, but . . . I didn’t think it was right for someone who believes in the national unity of my country to make a deal with people who want to split the country up.”

So let’s see: the coalition was divisive, illegitimate, unstable, and wrong—a formal pact with a separatist party that would have guaranteed them, in the words of the accord to which the three opposition leaders affixed their signatures, a “permanent consultation mechanism” in the government of Canada. Or pretty much what all of the coalition’s critics said at the time.

Except, that is, for Michael Ignatieff. At the time, he vowed his support for the coalition, explicitly, publicly, and repeatedly. At the time, he said, “I stand at one with other parliamentary colleagues in believing that we need to present the alternative of a coalition.” At the time, he said the coalition “provides responsible economic leadership in tough times.” At the time, he said Canadians should not fear the Bloc Québécois’ role in the coalition. He even signed a formal petition to the Governor General, assuring her that the coalition represented “a viable alternative government.”

Ignatieff was not the Liberal leader at the time, of course. But the then-leader, Stéphane Dion, had already announced his departure. And Ignatieff was the clear favourite to replace him, with the support of at least two-thirds of the Liberal caucus. Many in the party, moreover, were skittish of formally aligning themselves with the NDP and the Bloc, if not outright opposed. So there can be little doubt that, had Ignatieff come out against the coalition, it would not have happened. He could have stopped it, cold. But he didn’t.

Instead, the job fell to Stephen Harper. The Prime Minister had reasons of his own, of course, to object to the coalition taking power, and went to extraordinary lengths to prevent it, including asking the Governor General to prorogue Parliament—a measure that itself stretched the bounds of democratic legitimacy. But Harper also had to fight the battle for public opinion, which he did with gusto. What arguments did he make? The same arguments Ignatieff is making today: that the coalition was illegitimate, divisive, unstable and, above all, an unconscionable gift to the separatists—one that would have set precedents, raised expectations and elevated the Bloc’s prestige to new heights.

And it is for making the latter argument—that it was wrong to take into the counsels of the government of Canada a party devoted to its destruction—rather than proroguing, that the Prime Minister has taken the most heat, not only then but ever since: from editorialists, from the great and the good, and not least from Michael Ignatieff, all of whom accuse him of having put the unity of the country at risk with his “Quebec-bashing” rhetoric. Why, just the other day, in his address to the Liberal convention, Ignatieff was excoriating the Prime Minister for having “unleashed a national unity crisis” to save his government.

Yet so far as it was a national unity crisis, it was one Ignatieff did more than his share to bring on. If he did not set it in motion, he certainly had the power to stop it; whatever Harper may have done, it was only in consequence of what Ignatieff did not do. Yet Harper, who showed leadership in the crisis, is sinking fast in the polls. And Ignatieff, who showed none, is atop. Such are the wages of hypocrisy.

The irony, of course, is that had Harper not acted as he did—had his government been defeated, had the coalition pressed ahead with its plan—the situations might very well be reversed. It is far from clear that the Governor General would have called upon the coalition in the event of Harper’s defeat: indeed, given what we now know about Ignatieff’s misgivings, she would have been right to reject the disingenuous advice he then offered her.

And if the coalition had formed a government? Then it would almost certainly have collapsed, probably within weeks—though not before it had caused great harm to the country, and very likely the destruction of the Liberal party. How can I be so sure? I have it on the highest authority.