Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A rocky path

So far I've avoided commenting much on the Libs' Newfoundland and Labrador MP issue other than to point out how it undercut Michael Ignatieff's claim to message discipline. That's been based in part based on the fact that it's far too soon to turn the page on Ignatieff's more critical error in propping up the Cons in the first place, and in part on a sense that a remotely competent leader should have been able to defuse the story in a matter of hours.

But apparently Ignatieff doesn't fit that bill. And it may be possible to tell plenty about how he figures to handle his party and the broader political scene from his reaction to the first hint of dissent within his party.

First off, there's Ignatieff's utter naivete about how Stephen Harper would handle the situation. It's been fairly well documented that Harper's desire to work with other parties has ended where anybody has asked anything of him rather than vice versa - and "new spirit of cooperation" aside, I'm not sure anybody looking at the situation realistically would expect Harper to do Ignatieff any favours.

Yet after delaying doing anything for days, that seems to have been Ignatieff's first attempt to deal with the issue, with predictable results:
Mr. Ignatieff said he called Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday to ask him to reconsider the clawback. "I said would he push the 'pause' button on those changes, and rethink his approach to get greater national unity in a time of crisis. And he said no."
Now if only there had been some opportunity to put in place a government which would move past Harper's model of divide-and-conquer politics. But on that point, what's done is done.

That said, there's no reason why Ignatieff should have had to learn the hard way what should be obvious to anybody who's paid the slightest bit of attention to Canadian politics during Harper's stay in office. And the fact that he turned first to Harper to solve his own internal problem should speak volumes about Ignatieff's lack of decisiveness when it counts.

Ignatieff's next reaction, though, may be even more telling:
Mr. Ignatieff said late yesterday that he would have his Newfoundland MPs over for dinner at Stornoway in an effort to find common ground before today's vote.

But he made clear that withdrawing the Liberals' support for the budget is not on the table.

"Our support for the budget is not in question..."
Earlier, Mr. Byrne and two senior Liberal MPs, Ujjal Dosanjh and John McCallum, were attempting to find some way to head off the mini-revolt. Mr. Ignatieff's spokeswoman said yesterday, "It's too soon to talk about disciplinary measures," if any or all of the MPs make good on their threat.
Now, it should go without saying that a "revolt" only exists insofar as any vote against the budget is seen as prohibited by the leader. Which raises a serious question about why Ignatieff would see no need to even explain the apparent plan to stick to a strict whip.

At most, I've seen a few MPs mouth platitudes about the value of party solidarity. But there's no apparent reason why that has to be defined in terms of all voting the same way on a matter rather than all agreeing to the level of discretion given to individual MPs. And while opening up the door to a bit more MP independence on the budget vote might result in a few more MPs wanting to express their displeasure with Harper's direction, it wouldn't figure to have any effect on the substantive result.

If Ignatieff had made that his response from the beginning and worked within his party to reach agreeable terms for dealing with the budget, then there would be no danger of the Libs booting a substantial portion of their caucus for daring to do the opposition's job. But by dithering for several days then going to Harper first, he's ensured that both his party's divisions and his own ineffectiveness stay on the front page - and it may now be too late to secure internal agreement on what would seem to have been the best possible solution.

And more importantly, Ignatieff has confirmed that he's so bound by how politics are usually done that it he either doesn't even look for new ways to solve problems, or maintains a strong bias against creativity and progress in the face of tradition. And that common thread between his decision on the coalition and his ineffectiveness on the budget vote looks to make for one of the largest problems with him as a leader going forward.

Update: In fairness, Ignatieff eventually managed to stumble into something close to the right answer.

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