Monday, August 24, 2009

An Invisible Man reaps his reward

Former human rights advocate Michael Ignatieff has been missing in action all summer. Either his handlers have been hoping that the Tories would slowly self-destruct, or he was simply proving to be
pas sortable.

I would have to go with the latter. As leader, Ignatieff has proven to be little short of a disaster. Trying to get unequivocal statements from him on the issues (e.g., asbestos) has been like trying to nail jelly to a wall. In classic Liberal fashion, but without the bald-faced panache of a Jean Chrétien, he responds to direct questions by throwing out several disconnected and contradictory statements, hoping to please everyone on all sides of an issue.

Worse, as a natural-born patrician, it has quickly become apparent that he utterly lacks the common touch. Living outside the country for decades, returning only to receive the mantle of kingship from a desperate, rudderless party, he is seen by many as lacking in the visceral day-to-day sense of being a Canadian, working and living in this land. That might or might not be unfair. But what is his response? He writes a book about it.

And the issue that was shaping up to be his call-an-election point of honour was--EI reform. As I've noted before, working Canadians in a recession are desperately worried about holding onto their jobs, rather than looking for an increased dole once they're laid off. EI is an issue that couldn't conceivably capture the imagination of the electorate. Unless one is unemployed, there's no there there.

Yet, during his uninspiring acceptance speech at the Liberal convention in Vancouver, Ignatieff touched on a theme that might have sprouted wings. He spoke of a politics of unity as opposed to a politics of division: his language was dated ("two solitudes," forsooth), but his welcome notion of inclusion, versus Harper's perennial, angry us-vs-them divisiveness, would have been balm for an electorate weary of that nasty and fundamentally unproductive game.

He flubbed it.

Over the past few months we have watched the darker side of the Tory agenda emerge: the horrendous victimization of citizens like Abousfian Abdelrazik and Suaad Hagi Mohamud have been not only tolerated but actively defended at the highest levels of government. Arab-Canadians have been targeted; Roma refugees fleeing persecution in the Czech Republic have been barred; Mexicans wishing to visit Canada have been humiliated.

For an old human rights hand like Ignatieff this should have been manna from heaven: an opportunity for him to speak from the heart from familiar terrain in which he once distinguished himself as a scholarly and humane observer. It was a chance to renew and deepen his call for inclusiveness, with concrete examples rather than high-flown, empty rhetoric. An occasion to share a personal vision of Canada that would resonate with all but Stephen Harper's shrinking red-meat base.


MPs Dan McTeague and Irwin Cotler did their best to take up the slack. But these things call for leadership. Canadians needed to hear from the man who would be Prime Minister, they needed a vision, dammit, and an expression of deeply-felt anger at just how far the Conservative government has fallen short of it.

But taking a stand on anything might offend some possible voters. And it's particularly difficult to talk out of both sides of your mouth on human rights issues. As the Tory casualty list lengthened, waffling and weasel-wording were simply not an option. Only one alternative remained.


And now a new poll has been taken, and the Tories, who could have been eviscerated for their invention of tiered citizenship, their targeting of minorities, their racist exclusion policies, are riding a wave of popularity--by default. 39% support they have, putting them close to what, under our ridiculous first-past-the-post system, is known as "majority government territory." The Liberals are at 28%, approaching the Dion nadir. 49% of Canadians believe that the Liberals are not ready to run the country.

Ipsos-Reid pollster Darrell Bricker puts the matter squarely:

You don't want to peak too soon, but you have to peak at some point. We've seen how the peek-a-boo strategy works. If you're not there, you're not there.

Bobbing and weaving, admittedly, are important political skills. But at some point you have to land a punch. And up to now, the Liberals' man hasn't even forced the reigning champeen to break a sweat.

Fall election? Not Pygmalion likely.

UPDATE: My indefatigable Liberal buddy Scott Tribe points out that another poll (Harris-Decima) shows the Libs and Cons neck-and-neck. Let's wait for the EKOS poll on Thursday. But in the meantime, if being merely as popular as the Conservatives is now considered to be a Liberal triumph of sorts, then we can see just how far the despair in their ranks has penetrated.

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