So many questions, so few answers

The convention was a love-in that told us nothing about Iggy

So many questions, so few answersThe question is not, what does Michael Ignatieff stand for? It is, what does he stand for now? It is not, what would he do in government? It is, what would he do differently?

Seldom has any political candidate entered public life with so much of his philosophy already on the record: with 15 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles to his name, Ignatieff’s life is one long paper trail. Yet four years after his return to Canada and five months after becoming the de facto Liberal leader, he remains an enigma, aided in no small part by his penchant for disowning previously held positions when they prove controversial.

His support for the invasion of Iraq? That was in his former life as a cloistered academic. As a practising politician, he would later write in the New York Times, he can no longer afford “the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting.”

His enthusiastic embrace, during his 2006 campaign for party leader, of the carbon tax? In the wake of the party’s crushing defeat at the polls last October, that, too, is no longer operative: “You’ve got to work with the grain of Canadians, and not against them.”

Or take the set of apparently serious proposals for “nation-building” advanced in his latest work, True Patriot Love: for a high-speed rail line from Quebec City to Windsor; for widening the Trans-Canada Highway to four lanes, coast-to-coast; for a “national energy strategy” aimed at diverting the flow of oil and hydroelectricity from north-south to east-west.

Oh, that. Well, he wasn’t necessarily advocating any of these, you understand. They were just ideas. “It’s not a political manifesto,” he told a CBC interviewer. “It’s not the platform of the Liberal party.”

So it is with much of Ignatieff’s oeuvre. They are views. But they are not positions. As a writer, and as an expatriate, living abroad for most of his adult life, he has not had to dig in behind a policy (Iraq is perhaps the exception), to defend it in the searing heat of a political campaign, repeating it over and over again until it stamps itself on the public mind as a part of who he is. Even the 2006 leadership campaign was largely an intra-party affair, while his later, successful bid for the leadership was carried out entirely behind closed doors. That is why, notwithstanding his abundant writings, he remains a blank slate for most Canadians.

That may be about to change—at his press conference following last weekend’s convention, Ignatieff said the party would have a detailed, costed platform ready by next month. But there is little to suggest it will signal any brave departures—from received wisdom, from Liberal orthodoxy, from the status quo, or, in many respects, from the Conservatives.

Not that he has been unwilling to stake out controversial ground in the past. He showed an early readiness to break with liberal consensus over the miner’s strike in Britain, a heresy every bit as bold as his later defence of the Iraq war. His advocacy of the carbon tax was nervy—denounced as reckless folly at the time by, among others, Stéphane Dion—as was his endorsement, in the same campaign, of recognizing Quebec as a “nation.” Indeed, in this latter regard he went further than any federal leader has been willing to go, before or since. (I do not say this as praise.)

But a review of his other policy pronouncements does not reveal much in this vein. For the most part, they are unremarkable: pragmatic, cautious, occasionally contradictory. In other words, squarely in the mainstream of modern liberalism—or conservatism, for that matter.

He plainly has some familiarity with economics; as a young scholar at Cambridge, his work focused on the political economy of the Scottish Enlightenment—Smith, Hume and all that. Yet his grasp of the subject seems loose, a bit pop, and bound up in the Practical Man’s instinctive suspicion of anything he regards as “ideology.” Which is to say, coherence.

Thus he is for balanced budgets in general, but deficits in the present. He is for free trade, but also for “fair” trade. He does not explicitly call for a tax hike, but neither has he ruled one out. If it is unlikely that he would subject the country to crazed dirigiste experiments in industrial strategy (“government cannot predict where the economic opportunities of the future will emerge”), it is equally hard to imagine him pulling government out of any sectors it is now in.

He seems especially prone to the value-added fallacy, the notion that secondary processing is innately preferable to mere resource extraction. His 2006 platform, for example, vowed “to increase the amount of food processing in Canada,” as part of a “national food policy” that also pledged “to increase the market share of Canadian food consumption provided by Canadian producers.” He is equally vexed, in his latest work, that “so much of the oil and gas we produce flows south without even being processed.” Emphasis added, perhaps.

Energy policy is a particular source of confusion. He promises to “end our costly dependence on fossil fuels,” yet defends Alberta oil sands development as “an integral part of the future of Canada.” He will not impose a carbon tax, yet must know that without it, or something very like it, we have no hope of meeting our targets for greenhouse gas reductions.

But then, economics is not really his thing. As he said in his first speech to a Liberal convention, back in 2005, the Liberal party has three essential preoccupations: national unity, national sovereignty, and social justice. “Everything else,” he said, “is detail.”

Very well. Let’s deal with those in order. Ignatieff often speaks of Pierre Trudeau as his inspiration. His rhetoric is similarly packed with allusions to One Canada, bound by a “spine of citizenship,” united in the equal enjoyment of common liberties. He is an advocate of federal power, pointing out that we are already the world’s most decentralized federation. He has written at length in defence of “civic nationalism” against the divisiveness, even barbarism, of ethnic nationalism.

Yet, influenced by the later work of his mentor and biographic subject, Isaiah Berlin, he is willing to concede powers and legitimacy to those same forces of division, in the name of that most exalted of postmodern ideals, recognition. He praises as a defining Canadian value the collective’s power (he says “right”) to suppress individual rights in matters of language. His 2006 platform proposed not merely to “recognize” the Québécois nation, as in the Conservative resolution the House of Commons eventually endorsed. It was to entrench Quebec’s status as such in the Constitution, along with that of hundreds of Aboriginal nations, with whatever legal and political repercussions this entailed. He is less Pierre Trudeau than Charles Taylor.

Indeed, for someone who has written so thoughtfully about the excesses of nationalism abroad, he seems to have absorbed a peculiarly vulgar form of its Canadian expression. While he disavows the National Energy Program and other artifacts of 1980s economic nationalism, his nation-building proposals are a retreat even further into the past, to the railway nationalism of Sir John A. He repeats all the most dreadful national clichés: that we are the meeting of “two peoples” (utterly anachronistic: nobody at Confederation thought that way); that our constitutional motto is “Peace, Order and Good Government” (it is standard legal boilerplate; if there is a defining passage, it is rather to be found in the preamble: “a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom”); that what makes Canada distinct from the United States is its devotion to a laundry list of Liberal policies (thus reading out of the discussion the millions of Canadians who disagree with every one); and that the only way we can justify Canada’s existence is by way of such invidious comparisons.

On defence and foreign policy, the record is more encouraging. Iraq notwithstanding, he remains a humanitarian interventionist, a liberal hawk. He favours a robust Canadian military capacity, and has no use for anti-Americanism (the new U.S. empire’s “grace notes,” he wrote in 2003, are “free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known”). He was an ardent supporter of the Afghanistan mission, voting with the Conservatives to extend it in 2006, yet also embraces the withdrawal of Canadian troops after 2011. At the 2005 convention he appeared to endorse Canadian participation in the American ballistic missile defence program; later he backed away. He has been properly scornful of fetishizing the United Nations as the fount of all legitimacy, calling it “a messy, wasteful, log-rolling organization.”

Social policy, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. He is careful to bow before the latter-day Liberal deities of universal publicly funded daycare and the Kelowna accord—though whether he will specifically commit to either, with the hefty price tags attached to each, remains to be seen. He is sound on the perverse incentives of the welfare trap, less so on Employment Insurance—his proposed 360-hour standard of eligibility is a costly precedent that will prove hard to undo. He is entirely unsound on the lunatic nonsense known as “equal pay for work of equal value.”

Where he is most interesting, and seems most committed, is on the subject of education—not surprisingly, given his background. Half of his acceptance speech was given over to it. His 2006 platform included a useful proposal for converting a part of federal funding for education to a per-student, rather than per-capita, grant—“to reward those provinces’ institutions that attract the best and the brightest from across the country.” The pending platform is said to be heavily focused on the “knowledge” issues—education, training and research. He seems inclined to be quite radical here: at the 2005 convention, he brashly urged the party not to get “tangled up in federal-provincial battles over jurisdiction. Let’s just do it.”

So there you are: taken together, these provide some clues to the shape of Ignatieff’s thinking. But they do not tell us what his priorities would be, or how these broad inclinations would translate into specific policies. They suggest the general direction he would take. But they do not add up to a program of government. For that we will have to wait at least a month.

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