Political Ottawa is a lot like high school.
Not the 99% of the Capital Region where average folks live, work and raise families - that Ottawa is really nice and verdant and only high school-esque in the high schools.
The portion in question is the quadrangle between the Supreme Court, the Chateau Laurier, Hy's and 24 Sussex.
Political Ottawa has all the booming testosterone culture, the incessant gossip, the backstabbing and fumbling sex of any prime-time soap opera on the CW.
Most situations in Political Ottawa are handled like this:
- Someone challenges one of the many carefully measured and oafishly enforced hierarchies;
- Threats are exchanged;
- Someone is challenged to go outside;
- That person returns the challenge to go outside;
- Ornate rituals of being held back from fighting are enacted;
- A herd of milling gawkers chants for them to fight;
- Both sides claim they would have totally kicked the other guy's ass.
This provides lots of colour for reporting, easy to understand up-and-down charts, and fuel for outsized egos. But it doesn't actually improve productivity, reduce poverty or shorten the waiting times for health care treatment.
The Danny Williams-Newfoundland MPs-Michael Ignatieff budget brouhaha had all the fixings of your classic high school locker room push-o-rama.
Premier Billions is the classic school bully. Michael Ignatieff could have stood up to him and ordered his MPs to vote down the budget. Some would and some wouldn't. Everyone would have flared their teeth and looked good. Egos would be puffed, and copy would be sold.
But something really, really strange happened instead.
I must admit, I was ready to join the chorus of pundits decrying Mr. Ignatieff's handling of the situation.
I was even writing an aborted entry last night castigating Ignatieff for knuckling under in the face of a bully. "If you can't say no to Danny Williams," I wrote, so smartly. "How are you going to stare down Vladamir Putin over the Arctic or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his nuclear program?"
But with the benefit of a night's sleep and a little reflection, I now beleive Ignatieff handled the situation in a mature and thoughtful fashion that proved far superior to the reflexive and satisfying brinksmanship I was originally calling for.
Consider his course of action against the alternative.
Had Ignatieff laid down the law, he would have:
- Put at risk up to six seats in the next election, at a time when the Conservatives are just 11 seats short of a majority;
- Potentially lost at least two MPs immediately if the showdown went to its logical conclusion and he forced them from the caucus;
- Gained a reputation as a dictator in caucus, which has but modest benefits. Perhaps next time it would be easier to stare down dissidents, but those who cannot criticize freely will turn to the ancient Liberal caucus tools: the anonymous source, the whispered leak, the well-timed back-stab;
- Won a single day of positive media, followed by a month of castigating the Liberal leader for not being able to find a way to keep his hopes alive on the Rock;
- Ensured that Jack Layton would be able to increase his seat count in Newfoundland and Labrador by default.
Instead, Ignatieff sat down with the six MPs in question. He determined their needs, measured them against his, and worked out a solution. That's a pretty good start to handing a problem - you know, talking to people and finding points of common interest.
The solution is relatively elegant as well.
The MPs are allowed a meaningless token gesture to register their disapproval of the handling of the Newfoundland equalization calculation. But on votes of substance, the MPs must vote with the party.
Premier Williams is allowed to withdraw with honour. The MPs are allowed to withdraw with honour.
Mr. Ignatieff takes a little egg on his face for a day from the media because he didn't fire people for being concerned about their constituents. But now that the MPs are falling back into line, Ignatieff actually looks better than if he had suddenly lost 2-6 MPs over a relatively small beer issue.
He will have full unanimity of his party on the votes that matter.
And - perhaps most importantly - the next time trouble brews in caucus, he can sit the MPs down to privately work out a solution, instead of battling the issue out on the news pages.
How... unusual. How... grown-up. How... hopeful.
Strength is critical in politics. There is no doubt about that.
But strength is not bullying, ultimatums and "my way or the highway" dictums. That would be overbearing cruelty, not strength.
The way Ignatieff handled this situation reminds me of a famous quote by Alex Karras: "It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more strength to relate to people than to dominate them, more 'manhood' to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex."