Ignatieff takes off

Will he harvest public consent or stir up trouble? Probably both.

Ignatieff takes off

Michael Ignatieff landed unexpectedly in the inner sanctums of Canada’s Liberal party almost four years ago, like a rock hurled through a stained glass window. Not for him the mundane details of proclaiming his leadership intentions, and waiting his turn. He propelled himself from backbencher to crown prince to leader in a series of daring self-actualized leaps. The prime ministership of the country is next on his dance card.

Last week, at a three-day convention in a spanking new convention centre on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver, Ignatieff officially brought peace to the internal blood feuds that had torn the party apart under the preceding stewardships of John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion.

The highbrow newcomer dominated the convention which welcomed him as the party’s new leader—Moses armed with a GPS (God Positioning System)—while he used the occasion to sound off. His acceptance speech that celebrated the vote which confirmed his command of the party was a rousing performance—though he was the only candidate on the ballot. It was a fitting coronation, even if no puff of white smoke could be detected.

His speech was a bravura performance. The cadence of his words matched his body language, as he set out his agenda for a Canadian future based on his consensus style of leadership—in the context of his natural grace and sprinklings of literary allusions. What better equipment to face the long odds of leading a political party in this time of economic turmoil, than to be a certified world-class public intellectual with chutzpah to burn.

A typical passage from his acceptance speech accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of every misdemeanour except spreading a leprosy pandemic. “For three years you have played province against province, group against group, region against region, individual against individual,” he charged. “When your power was threatened last November, you unleashed a national unity crisis and saved yourself only by sending Parliament home. Mr. Harper, you have failed us. If you can’t unite Canadians, if you can’t appeal to the best in us—we can. We Liberals can build a federalism based on co-operation, not on confrontation.”

The former Harvard professor’s run for the Liberal crown has been remarkable. The Ignatieff victory was based on the identical motivations that fuelled his several previous careers. He believes that the world exists to be put in order, so that its scattered causes make sense and can be mobilized.

His original run for the Liberal crown in 2006 pegged him as an accident-prone candidate, but he has since morphed into the role. Every word of every declaration at this convention had been carefully programmed by his retinue of a dozen talented advisers—really, a private think tank—that served him well.

His assignment now is to ride herd over the witches’ brew remnants of a once-great political movement and march them back into power. He can only succeed by repairing the collateral damage inflicted by his sad-sack predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who was bounced out of office after solidifying his reputation as a politician who will never set the world on fire, except by accident. By the time he left, Canada’s Natural Governing Party was down to a puny paid-up membership of around 50,000—from a 2003 total of half a million.

The Vancouver gathering of the tribe served as a showcase for some of Ignatieff’s personal policy priorities. Several important initiatives such as high-speed rail links and Employment Insurance reforms were mentioned, but the delegates still have to take him largely on faith. There exists one tough negotiator with nerves of steel. That’s what makes him so dangerous to the enemies of his promise. He has stormed Ottawa’s political barricades with such vigour that no one can be sure if he will harvest massive public consent or stir up trouble. Most probably, both.

The practice of politics may be more of an art than a science, but in these barren latitudes it is a hard trade that normally requires half a lifetime’s apprenticeship. Instead, Ignatieff flashed on the scene, determined to revolutionize the Liberal party and alter the country’s political equations. Late in middle age he saw the chance of returning to his home and native land that he had outgrown during his lengthy exile. He struck a Faustian bargain: he would give up his treasured privacy for a fling at a final career during which he would not write but make history, becoming the man in full he always wanted to be.

In the process he realized that he was taking a chance on the maturity of Canadian voters who, he assumed, were no longer searching for a father figure but felt ready for a leading man—a charming post-modern, existential mentor.

The count, as he is sometimes called behind his back, is self-contained and protective of his inner core. Behind the intellect is a man guided partly by his intuition, and by the even sharper instincts of his wife, Zsuzsanna. He is as difficult to read as a Picasso abstract. He inevitably follows his patented operational code: “always the lesser evil”—which, come to think of it, perfectly defines Canada’s Liberal party.

Still, he is a star and that is what our political firmament all too obviously lacks. The overused word “cool” best describes Michael Ignatieff, who is creating all the political buzz these days. Cool is an aesthetic of comportment, demeanour, appearance and style, an elusive essence that sums up the lanky professor’s surprising emergence as the Liberal party’s last, best hope. There’s a powerful, combustible quality about him that raises unreasonably high expectations, which of course will be his biggest problem.

The most attractive quality of this unusual newcomer to Canada’s political hierarchy is his potential for growth, plus his highly developed sense of ambiguity. He knows little about ordinary Canadian voters, yet seems able to read the national and regional (Quebec) moods. He is well aware that the contradictions in the country’s character have grown so acute that no simple show of authority can reconcile them. And he recognizes that vacuum as his greatest opportunity.

Canadian politics is the art of making the necessary possible, a process that depends on a prime minister’s ability to inspire, to demonstrate superior negotiating skills and to exercise creative urges to heal. Ignatieff is slowly opening himself up for Canadians to endow him with their shared hopes and dreads, asking them to release their anxieties to the surface where they belong and can be resolved. Since he took over, last Dec. 10, the Liberals’ national polls have achieved a breakthrough, and are leading Harper’s Tories. Significantly, the latest CROP survey places Ignatieff’s Liberals ahead of the Bloc Québécois, which at the moment would theoretically be enough to put his party back in power after the next general election.

The precarious homestead in which we live requires profound policy shifts—almost the invention of a new Canada. It is too early to guess whether Ignatieff is up to the top job but the preliminary indications are favourable. It turns out that there was an advantage to his absence from all that political infighting over the past two decades. Not having been here, he carries no legacy from that bitter, unproductive time.

At the same time, the current period of economic mayhem requires a party leader willing to move beyond safe boundaries and act out of his own imperatives that address the pivotal issues which, if not dealt with, could turn stolid Canadians into revolutionary mobs. It is the strangest of times; driving a Chevy to the levy has become a patriotic act.

You cannot legislate changes of mood or a sense of purpose. Only political leadership can do that, and this will be Ignatieff’s testing ground. Mood has become fact. He has come this far by being a cool man in a hot world, going against the grain. He can no longer afford to remain self-contained, satisfied with merely being the custodian of his impressive potential. He prefers large, broad truths because he likes to think without encumbrances, which is a useful trait under the circumstances.

The whisperings of hope, that kept this Vancouver gathering of grinning Grits in a permanently expectant state that can only be described as barely contained euphoria, are an important start. The new leader’s surname still puzzled some of the older delegates who referred to their new chief as “that Michael guy.” But on the Saturday afternoon in a howling hall of happy converts, Ignatieff was consecrated as the party’s 21st century leader, bound for glory. The penultimate step in his march to the nation’s highest political office has been taken. Michael Ignatieff is exactly in the place he wanted to be. Now it’s up to him.

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