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Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail

Tom Flanagan

Ignatieff needs a history lesson Add to ...

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana

The leader of the opposition, after supporting the minority government's budget, decides that he would like to force an election after all. He publicly announces his intention to defeat the government, leaving the prime minister lots of time to react. Then the roof caves in at Stornoway.

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The government whips up a storm of public opposition to an election, telling people that they will lose benefits that were in the budget but have not yet passed through Parliament. Helping the government to survive, Jack Layton offers crucial support in return for policy concessions that will please NDP supporters. At a major turning point, the unity of the opposition is threatened as the leader loses the support of a key member of the caucus.

Public reaction is savage. People say they don't want an election, and the opposition falls to rock-bottom standing in the polls while the government soars. Pundits indulge in a feeding frenzy over the badly wounded body of the opposition leader. They deride his strategy. They demand that he reveal the platform he will run on in the next election campaign. They speculate that his political career is over. In response, the leader replaces his chief of staff and contemplates further changes in his retinue.

A description of Michael Ignatieff's last two months? Of course.

But every word also describes what happened to Stephen Harper in the spring of 2005. After initially supporting Paul Martin's budget, Mr. Harper decided to defeat the government when embarrassing revelations started to trickle out from the Gomery inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

Then everything happened as just described. The government mobilized public opinion against an election, the NDP changed sides, Belinda Stronach defected to the Liberals, Conservative poll numbers nosedived, Mr. Harper was savaged in the media and he reorganized his office.

A few conclusions seem obvious. First, it is useful to read history. Several recent books have described what happened to Mr. Harper in 2005, so it is hard to see why the Liberals would rush to repeat all the same mistakes. Although Mr. Ignatieff is a noted scholar, his job as leader means he doesn't have much time to read, but doesn't anyone on his staff read books about their opponents? When I published Harper's Team , Mr. Harper was peeved I was putting out too much information, but to judge from the Liberals' carelessness, he needn't have worried.

Second, if you're going to defeat the government, do it quickly. After three elections in five years, Canadians are tired of going to the polls. Governments have many means to excite public opinion against those who would force an election, and it's even easier to do so in the midst of a global recession. Mr. Harper learned the risks of giving the government time to react, so he dispatched Paul Martin quickly in November, 2005.

Third, if you're going to defeat the government, it helps to have a reason beyond thinking that you might be able to win the next election. The public knows that everything politicians do is motivated to a degree by partisan self-interest, but they also expect to see some concern for the public good. Having voted in the House of Commons for all of Mr. Harper's major policies, Mr. Ignatieff couldn't offer any cogent reason for saying on Sept. 1, "Mr. Harper, your time is up."

Mr. Ignatieff has messed up big-time, but the outlook doesn't have to be entirely bleak. Since he has been imitating Mr. Harper so closely, he can take solace from the fact that the Conservative leader bounced back, winning the next election and becoming prime minister less than a year after his time of troubles in spring 2005.

Replacing a chief of staff won't solve anything (in politics, the person who is fired is seldom to blame for what went wrong), but it can be an occasion for starting over.

The key is self-interrogation. Someone who wants the ultimate prize of becoming PM has to accept responsibility for all the things that go wrong along the way and figure out how not to repeat those errors (while realizing he will inevitably make others). That's the most important lesson of Mr. Harper's annus horribilis of 2005: that a leader can rebound from disaster to triumph if he accepts responsibility for his mistakes and learns to avoid them in the future.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager.

 

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