The Commons: Michael Ignatieff and the herd

The early reviews are in and Ignatieff is a disaster

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.