Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Good, The Bad, and the Igly

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Friday March 31, 2006 at 1:22 am)

In preparation for his stab at the prize, Liberal leadership hopeful Michael Ignatieff floated a big balloon on Thursday.

There’s a lot about the event that was very good:

Setting
Ignatieff spoke at the University of Ottawa, a suitable and friendly environment for an academic. Debate may be fierce (and there were a few protestors), but give academics the chance to see one of their own number climbing towards power and they come over gushingly adoring (comparisons to Trudeau abounded).
Timing
Some might question the idea of making a major declaration of principle in advance of entering the race. After all, if you’ve already decided to run, why wait until after a policy statement to announce your candidacy? There’s a bit of security in Ignatieff’s approach. Having let a few of his policies out, he can gauge public reaction and recalibrate the messages to work better in his announcement.
Patriotism
Ignatieff has been criticized for spending so much time outside of Canada. Beginning his speech with the old (stale and pathetic) standby of his childhood and family, he took the opportunity to emphasise his time in the country and met this criticism head-on. Taking the initiative on this point away from his opponents is a big win.

But for all that, there were some serious problems. The perception of Ignatieff as hawkish and conservative won’t be softened by a speech which reminds the public of his approval of the Iraqi War. He tried to soften the blow with a reference to “just” wars and his own work with the United Nations, but the discussion of the “responsibility to protect” is too technical and complex an issue to be properly digested and does nothing to limit his hawkishness when he allows for wars approved by:

  • The UN

OR

But there are problems other than policy points. The bad:

Debating Demons
The demonization of Stephen Harper was a prime Liberal strategy in the last two elections. It wasn’t good enough, and time with Harper in power will likely serve to reduce its effectiveness. Nevertheless, Ignatieff twice relied on this technique: attacking Harper’s Quebec policy as being favoured by sovereigntists and claiming that Harper supports a growing divide between rich and poor (a “sauve qui peut” Canada). Should the candidates spend time attacking the government? Absolutely. But doing so, like the campaign, requires substantive attacks, not more vague assertions. Given the lack of specifics in his own speech and the brevity of the government’s term thus far, Ignatieff’s sole substantial complaint, ambiguous policy, comes off somewhere between hypocritical and hypercritical. That’s not where he wants to be. If this is his approach to opposition, it bodes ill.
Intergovernmental Impossibilities
Ignatieff calls, prudently, for multi-year agreements to stabilize intergovernmental funding. Unfortunately, the nature of Parliamentary government means that governments can’t guarantee that pledge: they can only pledge to try to make it happen. It’s not a question of fluctuating revenues — it’s the fact that government can’t bind Parliament’s hands. And it is Parliament that has the right to allocate funds. Attempts to set up long-term funding formulas are always subject to budget votes and changes in government. It’s a promise that can’t really be delivered, and that’s why it’s a poor solution for instability in federalism. The fact that Ignatieff doesn’t seem to realize that suggests a poor appreciation of the political realities of federalism.
Indistinct Ideas
While he claims repeatedly to differ from Harper, his vague presentation of his positions leave little but that claim to distinguish his own political positions from those of the Conservatives. He calls for Kyoto targets to be met (easy to call for, virtually impossible to do), while the Conservatives have recently suggested the targets won’t be met. Is that really enough? The public needs something real to hang on to, and Kyoto has probably been beaten around for too long to serve the purpose.

But the biggest problem is the speech itself. It’s not a bad speech — really. It’s carefully written and not too difficult to follow. Of course, it’s a speech. It’s a set of prepared remarks, rather than a conversation, interview or response. If it weren’t properly drafted, he could fire the speechwriter. He won’t have that option in dealing with the press, and the speech doesn’t suggest that he’s rolling off positive, resonant, and witty messages.

Consider, in closing, the theme he chose: Canadians as a “serious people”. Is that supposed to suggest that Canadians are receptive to serious discussion, paving the way for Ignatieff to stop bothering with interesting or exciting oratory? Is it supposed to appeal, basely, to their egotism — if so, isn’t there a better epithet than “serious”? Is it supposed to inspire them — to what?

Most likely, it’s the first: a plea for the patient attention which rambling policy demands. The Cold Hard Wonk wouldn’t mind a bit of the same; but then, the Wonk doesn’t need it to keep going. If Michael Ignatieff does, he’s not the man to lead the Liberals. Perhaps they should take the advice he carelessly offered midspeech:

Let’s follow Stephan Dion’s leadership and do what we have to, right away

Taken out of context? Only very slightly:

Let’s follow Stephan Dion’s leadership and do what we have to, right away, to meet our Kyoto commitments.

Unless it’s a subtly prophetic announcement for a would-be rival, that phrase should never have been allowed to remain in the speech.

Is there time for Ignatieff to improve? Of course there is, that’s why this speech was made first. But there’s not a lot yet to indicate that the major objections to the man’s leadership are being dealt with; and that’s just plain ugly.

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