Skip to main content
gerald caplan

Michael Ignatieff's interminable summer of small towns, small crowds and small media coverage is now over. Privately the man must be ecstatic. And yet all he has to look forward to is another session of parliament where he remains a lame duck to be constantly humiliated by new Government House Leader John Baird and Stephen Harper's other wild dogs.

He can say what he likes, but it's hard to believe that every day in every way, Mr. Ignatieff would not give the moon to regain his previous life. As a late-blooming politician, it's been a long, hard, often demeaning four years.

His fall from grace actually began shortly before his Great Canadian Adventure. While still a fashionable Harvard-based public intellectual who referred to Americans as "we," Mr. Ignatieff had caused incredulity among many of his previous admirers - of whom I was among the fervent - by justifying both George Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq and his approval of torture. These positions haunt Mr. Ignatieff still, as they should.

Mr. Ignatieff's plunge into partisan politics back home in Canada did not enhance his reputation. He was immediately complicit in violating the constitution of his chosen riding association when his backers unilaterally closed nominations well before the appointed time. This blatant attack on democracy, he insisted, was democracy in action.

Then came the insufferable unction. Every day, every event, every development, was the proudest of the new Michael's existence. Never mind his previous lifetime of international celebrity and awards. Putting in his nomination papers (even unconstitutionally) was his proudest moment ever. So was the formal nomination meeting. So was being elected to Parliament. It was a wonder he could cope with the burden of so many firsts, poor chap. But the phony-baloney humility didn't work. He just wasn't a natural politician. For the life of him he couldn't fake sincerity.

Finally, though, destiny wove its predestined web. Mr. Ignatieff became Liberal Party Leader without a single vote being cast, very possibly a first in the long history of democracy. From there on up it's been downhill all the way. Soon the Ignatieff Liberals were being embraced by the same 25 per cent of the voters even Stéphane Dion couldn't alienate. Facing the most dangerous Prime Minister in Canadian history yet sensibly terrified of forcing an election, Mr. Ignatieff allowed Mr. Harper to operate as if he had a majority government.

Come the dog days of summer 2010, the Liberals find themselves lower than a snake's belly. Almost weekly Stephen Harper has tried everything possible to self-immolate, but Mr. Ignatieff has taken advantage of none of it. He wants nothing more than to spend the humid, sticky days of July and August reading Dostoevsky aloud to his bride, in the original Russian. But the optics would not be good. He must be seen to be doing something. He descends to the inner circle of Canadian political hell: the summer BBQ circuit, in every province and territory.

He emerges claiming victory. What else can he say? Some believe he can now even fake sincerity more convincingly. But look at the polls. Nobody pays attention to politics in the summer anyway, Liberal hucksters fervently spin, so polls don't count. But then why campaign all summer, fellahs? After two dreadful months for the government, largely self-inflicted, the Conservatives can attract only about one in three Canadians. Yet Mr. Ignatieff's party is still stuck somewhere between 25 to 30 per cent. At best the Liberals might be tied with this unpalatable government.

And yet the Liberal Party is doing vastly better than the Liberal Leader. In terms of personal qualities and competence, Mr. Ignatieff has failed to impress his fellow citizens as much as Stephen Harper. This would be humiliating to anyone, let alone a Michael Ignatieff. It cannot bolster his self-confidence or the undying devotion of his followers.

But only fanatical Liberals - a dying breed, alas - can really be surprised. After four years, it's hard to see why Mr. Ignatieff has bothered at all. He appears to stand for nothing except the centre, wherever and whatever that is. There are no grand policy initiatives, and barely any modest ones. There are no insights on the economy, especially the unemployment crisis. There is no sense of how he will bring democracy and accountability back to a country that is watching it deteriorate before their eyes. If he's concerned about growing inequality within Canada he has impressively hidden it. Only on the issue of preserving the long-gun registry has Mr. Ignatieff shown real leadership and courage, and for that he indeed deserves to be saluted.

Otherwise, it appears that his only real motive for wanting to be Prime Minster is that it would be a nice addition to his extraordinary curriculum vitae while keeping Bob Rae out. Who knows? Maybe that's a good enough reason, along with not being Stephen Harper.