Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Canadians Get Jiggy With Iggy?

Michael Ignatieff is now the leader of the Liberal Party, that much we know. But how much do Canadians really know about him? He’s most often described as an intellectual, one who has a PHD from Harvard where he was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He’s also the author of 16 books, which combined with his Harvard experience gives him something of a connection to US president elect Barack Obama, also a Harvard alum and author.

Favourable comparisons fade after that. Whereas Obama is famous for his skilled oratory, Ignatieff comes across more like a typical academic in my view. At over sixty years of age he lacks Obama’s youthful appeal, and although he has since recanted, he was once a strong supporter of the Iraq war. “Iggy” though does have something of an exotic background in common with the president elect, being the grandson of a Russian minister to the Tsar.

The comparisons are inevitable given our national obsession with using the United States as a measuring stick for all things Canadian, but I’ll end it here. What’s more pressing are questions as to his leadership style and his ability to lead the Liberal Party to electoral success. And on those counts there isn’t much to go on given the short time Mr. Ignatieff has been on the national stage, having only returned to Canada in 2005. Some take exception to the fact that he was out of the country for so long, however that can also be played as a strength. I myself grew up in the US (Canadian born though eh) and it does provide one with the ability to view the country through a different set of eyes.

My overall take on Michael Ignatieff is that he’s something of a pragmatist, which leads to inevitable contradictions. He’s perceived by many to be a strong advocate on human rights issues, with his view that we place unjust burdens on women and homosexuals. On the other hand he’s also argued that we in the west may have need for things like ‘coercive’ interrogation methods…coercive is such a nice way of saying torture.

Some are lamenting the lack of a vigorous leadership campaign, however given the political circumstances unfolding right now this was likely the best choice. With a dysfunctional Parliament currently on time-out the Liberals couldn’t afford to continue rudderless. While Bob Rae is certainly a skilled politician and thoroughly likeable (I shared an elevator with him on a couple of occasions)…the baggage from his time as Ontario’s Premier was hefty. That’s not to say he couldn’t have overcome it, but why take the risk when there’s a viable alternative.

Ignatieff did sign the coalition agreement with the NDP, (as did all Liberal MPs)…but he comes across as only lukewarm in terms of his support for governing alongside the New Democrats with support from the Bloc. There’s a lot yet to be written on Canada’s newest player in the arena that is Canadian leadership politics. But whereas Stephane Dion was likely the Conservatives’s dream opponent, I think Michael Ignatieff will present them with a much better fight whenever the next election comes along.

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