Saturday, May 09, 2009

Ignatieff's spinelessness problem

Thomas Walkom's latest column is definitely worth a read in tying together a few of the criticisms which Michael Ignatieff has earned during his stay with the Libs. But I have to wonder if Walkom largely misses the point in his assumptions as to what we should take from Ignatieff's detachment from modern Canadian politics:
On March 28, at a public gathering in Victoria designed to showcase his talents, federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was asked a simple question about asbestos...

"I'm probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I'm unaware," Ignatieff replied. "But if asbestos is bad for parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else. So you have to be right, and our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop."

It was a clear answer – unequivocal, logical and, in broad public policy terms, almost certainly correct.

But given the importance of the asbestos mining industry in Quebec and the power of the asbestos lobby in Ottawa, it was also decidedly impolitic – so much so that within four days Ignatieff was forced to ignominiously back-pedal, insisting that he meant only that Canada should warn potential buyers about any dangers posed by the mineral.

A small incident? Perhaps. But it also highlights what may turn out to be Ignatieff's greatest political weakness: He is out of touch...

In many ways, he still seems removed. Take, for instance, his 2006 suggestion that Israel committed war crimes in Lebanon. Faced with howls of protest from within his own party, he quickly reversed himself.

At one level, that was just the standard story of a politician weaving and ducking. But in a more fundamental way, the Israel gaffe – like the asbestos gaffe – demonstrated Ignatieff's ignorance of the modern political Canadian landscape.

In the `60s, during the time of former prime minister Lester Pearson, it might have been relatively easy for a mainstream Canadian politician to criticize Israel. These days, it's virtually impossible without being labelled a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or both.
Now, there's certainly some force to Walkom's theory that if Ignatieff was better acquainted with the current state of the Canadian political scene, he wouldn't end up having to backtrack from statements like those on asbestos and Lebanon. But the fact that Ignatieff's distance from Canada makes it slightly tougher for him to avoid saying anything of substance seems to me to be a secondary issue at most.

Instead, the more important question should be whether or not Ignatieff was actually justified in his initial statements - and if so why it is that he's so eager to let corporate pressure and baseless taboos override any actual judgment.

In that respect, Walkom doesn't seem to doubt that Ignatieff was actually right the first time on asbestos in particular. So let's stick to that example in evaluating Ignatieff's actions.

Is it really a bad thing for a potential prime minister to challenge the boundaries of elite opinion - particularly when that's based in cynical self-interest rather than any rational basis - by injecting some rational analysis into the discussion? I'd argue that on the contrary, that's exactly the action that we should in fact be seeking in a strong and effective leader.

But there's a necessary second step as well: a strong and effective leader also has to be willing to push back when a challenge to his position lacks a basis in fact. And that's the part of the test that Ignatieff has failed miserably, as his every bout of truth has been quickly followed by immediate backtracking toward the same ill-founded position that needed to be questioned in the first place.

Ultimately, if Ignatieff's return to Canada provided him with a perspective relatively free of some of the more groundless hidden assumptions underlying Canadian elite opinion, then that could in fact have been a great opportunity for positive transformative change - that is, if he was willing to stick to an evaluation on the merits rather than retreating immediately from the task. And it's the fact that Ignatieff sees it as his role to conform even when that means being in the wrong that should serve as the strongest indication that he's not suited to the job of leading the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment