Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lacking distinction

I noted yesterday that both Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff appear to have gone out of their way to emphasize bipartisanship in their meeting with Barack Obama. But let's look in a bit more detail at what Ignatieff had to say, and what it may say about the likelihood of the Libs reversing their current lack of effective opposition in the future:
Mr. Ignatieff spent a lot of time talking about the importance of bipartisanship in Canada on foreign policy and how they had made the decision to back the government on the deployment after the Manley Commission, and that they saw this as not a partisan issue; it was more important to get the country together on issues like the budget and on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that this was a commitment that they were sharing across the parties, and that they wanted to work together with the United States.
Now, the first obvious point is that in emphasizing "bipartisanship", Ignatieff looks to have cut off a substantial portion of Canada's political spectrum for the purposes of his own analysis. In the U.S., the term can relatively plausibly be seen as encompassing the field of political debate (give or take a Bernie Sanders). But it would seem to me a clear misstatement to suggest that two-party agreement in Canada can be equated with the same type of across-the-spectrum consensus-building which would be associated with the term in the U.S. - much as Ignatieff and Harper may both wish it were so.

But then, it's true that a Con/Lib team effort can functionally impose its will on the country. And that's where it's interesting to note how Ignatieff described his party's actions and positions to Obama.

I've pointed out before that Harper's ability to strongarm the Libs into the most recent Afghanistan extension should be seen as a cautionary tale in which the Libs traded their support for nothing of substance. But apparently Ignatieff's view is just the opposite, as he both actively trumpeted the previous vote, and appears to see the issue as one where the importance of keeping the unwashed masses in line outweighs the need to actually act as an opposition party.

Perhaps even more significantly, Ignatieff appears to have looked at the budget vote as a similar type of result: rather than describing any need to put Harper on probation, he apparently described the Libs' support for the Cons' budget as being based on a similar desire to "get the country together" behind Harper's preferred course of action.

Of course, that runs contrary to the Libs' public message at home, which has involved putting as brave a face as they can muster on their lack of sufficient backbone to topple the Harper government. Which means that it's worth asking just who Ignatieff is trying to kid: Obama, the Canadian public, or maybe both.

Moreover, to the extent Ignatieff has signaled a continued intention to place bipartisanship and elite consensus at the top of his priority list, it's hard to see how he could justify taking any more of a stand in the future - meaning that we're all the more likely to be in for another series of Lib capitulations on the confidence votes they've put in place.

In sum, rather than using his time with Obama to lay the groundwork for any future improvement on Harper's vision of Canada/U.S. relations, Ignatieff has instead done little but to highlight the similarities between himself and Deceivin' Stephen. And Ignatieff's choice of message about himself and his party to our most important international partner should serve as a warning signal to voters at home.

Update: Impolitical challenges a few of the points made above. My quick responses:
- On the question of where the term "bipartisan" comes from, there would be a more plausible case to suggest it might be a matter of Obama's handlers' interpretation if it was a single reference rather than something which Ignatieff is described as spending "a lot of time" discussing. And it's hard to see what the term or anything like it could be referring to other than the Con/Lib team effort, since on both issues mentioned the NDP and the Bloc disagreed with the outcome.
- As for the rest of the post, Impolitical seems to nicely describe the Libs' current framing: that under Ignatieff they're basically just like the Cons, only with a less toxic leader, a bit more seriousness and a bit less tolerance for Bushco's worst abuses. It'll be for Canada's voters to decide whether that's what they're after, or whether they prefer a genuine change in outlook - but from my standpoint at least the Cons' actions in office cry out for far more change than that.

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