Register Saturday | January 22 | 2022

Is There a Doctor in the House?

The Liberal party is sick. Only fresh ideas and new leadership can save it now


An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Michael Ignatieff endorses the use of torture. In fact, he endorses the use, in certain cases, of coercive interrogation techniques. This article has been corrected.

With the Liberal party defeated and in disarray, little is more presently newsworthy than the current speculation over who might lead it next. Like hockey trading cards, the strengths and weaknesses of all the likeliest Liberal leaders are being compared and contrasted from all sides and, since winning his riding in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Michael Ignatieff is one name that has been on all the pundits' leadership lists.

Yet these lists have seemed to represent who wants to lead the Liberal party, rather than whom the Liberals actually need at their helm. The sad truth is that the Liberal party is a sick patient; intellectually withered-a party desperately in need of ideas that can galvanize the rank and file and, ultimately, Canadians at large. Nothing illustrated the intellectual collapse of the party more so than the recent election: the country waited for a Liberal platform that never came, while every day the Conservatives were pounding out policy announcements that, if not universally popular, at least forced Canadians to react and engage.

It is true that Ignatieff may not be the cure for what ails the Liberal party. It has been said that the Harvard professor and former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy still has to develop "Liberal credentials," not to mention political street-smarts and grit. And, after Mr. Dithers, the last thing the Liberals need is another absent-minded professor. But with the A-list candidates opting out of the Liberal leadership race, Ignatieff's principal contribution during this period of re-genesis may be the strength of his intellect and the calibre of his ideas, regardless of whether he runs (or wins) the party leadership.

"As I see it, the Liberal Party has three essential purposes: to protect and enhance our national unity, to preserve and defend our national sovereignty and to advance the cause of social justice."

That was Ignatieff speaking to the Liberal party convention in March 2005, a fleeting glimpse of his vision for Canada and his party-and likely the only insight we'll get into his beliefs until the leadership race begins in earnest. But perhaps that glimpse is all we need. A leadership race where the tone of the debate is set by Belinda Stronach's empty metaphors about "bigger economic pies," or where two of the four contenders-former Tories Scott Brison and Stronach-are proven political chameleons, will do more damage than good to the party.

Despite Martin's best intentions, his power was accumulated through the force of his ambition and the ambitions of those around him. He was less a leader who wielded power adeptly than a man who followed power until it finally accepted him. The most inspiring leaders are those able to rally the masses by hoisting up before them ideas that promise hope and progress. If, then, the Liberal party's future is to be made or squandered on the strength of its ideas, what will be Ignatieff's contribution to the debate?

To the realm of national unity, Ignatieff brings an exceptional knowledge of identity politics, indispensable if the Liberals hope to repair their tattered relationship with Quebec or improve the status of aboriginals in Canada. Meanwhile, he has called anti-Americanism an "electoral ghetto," ideological territory best left to the NDP, while simultaneously rejecting continentalism. He believes Canada should increase its military capability and foreign-aid budget. He brings a track record of contrarian and controversial views ranging from support for the invasion of Iraq to a positive assessment of the Canada-US missile-defence shield.

Ignatieff's strength is unquestionably his vision of Canada's role in the world. In this arena, where Martin has failed so completely, he brings an extensive body of knowledge exploring-and indeed pushing forward our collective understanding of-notions of humanitarianism and national responsibility in today's global community. Yet Ignatieff will not instantly be able to speak knowledgeably in all fields. In matters of health care, child care and the economy the repatriated Canadian will face the same steep learning curve as the other candidates.

Perhaps it is with regard to the notions of leadership-power, how to wield it and how to ensure that it is not abused-that Ignatieff will have the most to contribute to the debate. The successful prime ministers of the past generation-Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien-were fighters; decisive and shrewd thinkers, tenacious in their approach to governance who weren't afraid to displease in pursuit of their goals.

Like his writings, a mix of theoretical doctrine and political pragmatism, so too is Ignatieff's leadership imagined. It is true that, aside from the initial skirmish and resulting media attention that attended his riding nomination meeting, we have yet to see his toughness really tested. Ignatieff has, in the past, demonstrated a willingness to espouse unpopular positions. The most notable example is Ignatieff's belief-a position outlined in his essay Lesser Evils-that successfully fighting terrorism could require adopting methods that challenge our values. For example, Ignatieff argues there are times when the use of coercive interrogation techniques could be justified in order to protect society from massive civilian casualties.

A controversial position, certainly, but it is possibly evidence of a political actor willing to stand his ground regardless of the polls, one who understands that leadership is not simply the act of amassing power for power's sake but the act of taking a nation into an uncertain future, regardless of the short-sighted resistance he might face from time to time.

Ignatieff parachuted into the Canadian political landscape, and the transition from the abstract world of academia to the hardscrabble reality of federal party politics will not be an easy one. The fact that his campaign was met with resistance from the very communities he studied in his policy research offers just a taste of the fights he will face in the next few months. The leadership race ahead is one that will not be worth winning if it is not treated as the Liberals' last chance to cement the ideas upon which their electoral future is to be rebuilt.