Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Michael Ignatieff Getting a Break From the Right-Wing Media?

How revelations of the latest Reform-Conservative corruption will play out in the polls is any one's guess. I've been disappointed in Canadians lately, but certainly have not given up on us. I know that the Canada as seen by Stephen Harper is not the one that we see and still can't buy into the fact that we are now considered to be a right-wing country. Canada?

Now viewed on the world stage as hard right and irrelevant? Canada? How did we let this happen?

But more shocking to me was the media reaction. Yes we had the usual 'Coo-coo for Harper fluff' crowd, but some like Rex Murphy and Don Martin, actually took a few baby steps to the left. Are they realizing that Harper is not the squeaky clean little 'Christian' boy, they had come to adore? Probably not. Just a momentary lapse of good judgement, I suspect.

But Rex is now seeing Mr. Ignatieff as a leader and Don Martin may have shown an inkling of empathy for a man who can't even watch a baseball game, without seeing his image float across the screen, with some personal assault on his character and career.

However, I believe that the same fortitude that made Michael Ignatieff not only an author but an award winning author; not only a documentary filmmaker, but a Gemini winning documentary filmmaker; not only a professor of Human Rights at Harvard, but the head of their Human Rights department and not only a varsity soccer player but captain of the varsity soccer team; will prevail. We just have to look beyond the six months of non-stop attack ads by the Reform-Conservatives and ask ourselves why they are so afraid of Michael Ignatieff?

Follow the leader, but which one?
At the present moment, the competition between the Conservatives and Liberals is not really about policy
October 23, 2009

Leadership isn't everything, but it's near enough. In today's politics, the leader very much is the party.

Think for a moment. We cannot contemplate the American Democratic Party without Barack Obama. Go back a few years and you could not contemplate Alberta's Conservative Party without almost total reference to Ralph Klein and, further back still, Ontario's Conservative Party without thinking of Mike Harris.

Similarly, at the present moment, the competition between the federal Conservatives and the Liberals is not really about policy, it's about their leaders. When Canadians next come to choose, that choice will be mostly contingent on their estimate of the two principals, their admiration of, indifference to, or animosity toward Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff. Modern elections are leader elections.

If Mr. Harper seems to have blunted his sharp partisan elbows, to have “grown” a little more accommodating and less doctrinaire over his (now fairly long) tenure as a minority PM, if voters – particularly in Ontario – see him as less “scary” than when he first came on the scene, the Conservatives will have a strong chance to repeat as a minority government, and a modest one at securing a majority.

A parallel process attends Mr. Ignatieff. If voters perceive him as genuinely “fresh,” not barnacled by the infighting of the Liberal faction machine, as genuinely past the “prime the pump” politics of the Chr├ętien years – years of majorities, yes, but accompanied by a bullying style and a boatload of carelessness and scandal – and if Mr. Ignatieff comes to be seen as what he claims to be – a new-style politician – then the Liberals will return to the familiar comforts of power.

The assessment of a political leader is, most often, an evolving process. People come to a decision on the desirability of a leader, not on the flash of a single event. One bad call by a leader – Mr. Ignatieff's “throwdown” to Mr. Harper at the beginning of the current session – may weaken him, draw him (and his party) down in the polls for a period. A smart move, or a novelty – Mr. Harper assailing the Beatles' canon with Yo-Yo Ma – may, temporarily, pay a short-term dividend. But voters don't make final choices on single events, be they blunders or petty coups de main .

Most people – not ultra-partisans, in other words – grow into their choices. They watch the House, they talk at Tim's. They take note of style and content, and then – in a combination of intuition and deliberation – settle into an assessment. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to say when they finally lock into a choice. But that elusive moment does arrive. There is some point at which people who have wavered or withheld their judgment cross an invisible threshold and decide that X or Y is the “right leader.”

With Mr. Harper, the period involved has actually been years. He has always stimulated very sharp, negative responses, was seen early as narrow, “tainted” by the evangelism – political and religious – of Reform, as a throwback to an older, declining politics. This was never quite fair but, in politics, the hand dealt is the hand that must be played.

With Mr. Harper, however, we have witnessed a gradual, almost tortoise-paced, acceptance by some who originally fainted on his emergence. Mr. Harper, I once thought, was confined – by his personality, by his politics, by his image – largely to the support he already had. The sense now is that Mr. Harper edges every day into a persona less freighted by the bugbears his opponents conjured at the mention of his name.

Mr. Ignatieff has had almost a reverse progress. His arrival had elements of “buzz,” not mania. He carried intellectual distinction. He offered reporters and columnists much fodder for speculation and assessment, most of it positive. His arc was upward almost from the beginning, right to his securing the leadership. But since becoming leader, the rising arc has slowed, indeed, has ceased.

Mr. Ignatieff is, I think, approaching that critical, unmarkable moment when people are settling in their judgment of him. He is in the most important months, perhaps weeks, of his career. It's been close, but it seems he has recognized his jeopardy. The walk-back from “Harper must go” and threatening an election was wise. The concentration, lately, on the Conservatives' big cheque blunders and their partisanship is shifting the focus. He seems to have wakened to the difficult insight (for Liberals) that ranting about Mr. Harper and his nefarious band will not do as a surrogate for a real party platform.

Both men are being measured these days by voters who are starting to think it's time for a majority. For the moment, Mr. Harper has the edge. But Mr. Ignatieff has signalled – however faintly – that he has his much-reputed wits about him. The game is not over and, between these two bright men, we Canadians may have a real and exciting contest at last.

Why Ignatieff is smiling again
Tories 'now in the frying pan': Liberal leader
Don Martin,
National Post
October 22, 2009

Laughter has returned to the floor above Stephen Harper's office on Parliament Hill, where the Liberal leader is rewriting the party's winter playbook.

It's no longer that the Prime Minister's "time is up" in a mad rush to force a snap election. Emerging from a hellish month when everything went wrong, Michael Ignatieff has changed his mind and plans to "let him stew" until next spring to see if he can build on changing Liberal fortunes.

While an election delay only makes sense for a party sinking to deep lows in the polls, it's also true that a Conservative government basking in a polling bump just last week suddenly appears on the defensive.

That's why the most relieved face in Canadian politics today is the pink-tied leader, who sat in his Centre Block office one floor above Mr. Harper's for a candid National Post interview, anxious to switch the channel after the weeks of public backlash and internal dissent stemming from his decision to oppose the government and try to force a vote.

Canadians, a seemingly re-energized Mr. Ignatieff predicts, will need a little more time -- but they'll learn to loathe the Conservatives again. That's arguable, given his party's fracturing in Quebec and faltering in Ontario, for which the leader admits he's not without blame.

"I've still got a lot of work to do ... but I think that the Conservatives are now in the frying pan," Mr. Ignatieff insists. "What we get for the $56-billion deficit will be the legacy question of Stephen Harper's administration."

"What Canadians feel they've got is a massive and grotesque Conservative re-election campaign and a lot of the pork is starting to stink, particularly coming from a government that promised accountability."

He has cause for sudden optimism. His Liberal back-room is digging up enough dirt to sustain allegations of the stimulus package as partisan slush. It's more than just that one oversized cheque bearing the Conservative party logo. Conservative MPs are now quietly questioning even the wisdom of their own signatures on the fake cheques.

Other indications are piling up that the use of deficit dollars for electioneering advancement has gone systemic.

Various newspaper investigations have waded through a government maze which confounds simple stimulus analysis to discover a Conservative riding bias in pocketing the handouts, which appear to validate Liberal research that is angrily disputed by government officials who insist it will all balance out in the end.

Reporters have also discovered that Mr. Harper's elaborate showcase event last spring to reveal some basic fiscal progress racked up a six-figure price tag when it could've and should've been staged in Ottawa for free.

Even the government's handling of the Afghanistan file is taking a hard hit which seems to mesh with the Liberal theme of this as a heavy-handed government fixated on snuffing out dissidents and unscripted distraction.

Former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier's autobiography, A Soldier First, was generally supportive of the Harper government, but he did unleash on the Prime Minister's Office for its control-freakish bid to gag and hide him from public view.

And there are the nagging optics of the government's refusal to co-operate with a Military Police Complaints Commission probe into Afghan detainees as it prevents a key diplomat from releasing his eye-witness reports to prisoner torture.

"If they'd let people talk freely, we'd be out the other side of this inquiry by now," Mr. Ignatieff says. "Instead we're in this lockdown, cover-up mode where the only thing they're trying to protect is their reputation, not the honour of the Canadian Forces."

Add all this up and the recently besieged Michael Ignatieff has a pinch-me-I'mdreaming attitude as he moves to counter those incessant Conservative "just visiting" attack ads.

"How would you feel when you're watching the third or fourth inning of a ball game and every time there's a commercial break, you're on there? I'm not complaining because this is politics, but for heaven's sake there's no big mystery why my numbers are down. I've been beaten up for six months," he says.

So will Mr. Ignatieff lift his attack from the Commons floor to the airwaves, trading sucker punch for sucker punch on television? No way, he says.

"It's not about Michael Ignatieff. It's about this damn government," he says. "I don't want to attack his patriotism or his family or his loyalty to the country. What bothers people about the Conservatives is their 24-hour hyper-partisan politics of personal destruction and I'm not going to fall into that trap."

Hmmm. So where do nice guys usually finish?

But aside from Mr. Ignatieff's good week, which could be a short-lived phenomenon, he still faces the dual challenges of selling a redefining image of himself and filling the policy void with an idea or two that voters can grasp.

He seems determined to campaign against Stephen Harper as a Machiavellian monster, whose heart only beats when he sees an opening for political gain. That would be a hard sell as a platform.

"Harper's a political animal in every sense of the word. It's all politics, all the time," Mr. Ignatieff says. "I'm not that kind of politician. It was easy for me to vote in the middle of a national crisis to support a budget I had difficulty with because I thought the bottom was falling out of this place. But eight months later you look at this and think, what the hell's happening? From zero deficit to $32-billion to $56-billion and all of it with a Conservative logo on it."

That's a stretch, but after 40 minutes with Mr. Ignatieff, surrounded by suddenly upbeat staff, you get the sense that a leader given up for dead has at least checked out of palliative care.

Nobody will be talking about Prime Minister Ignatieff any time soon, but there's some mojo in a Liberal momentum that had been stopped all summer by his disappearing act and all fall by his strategic missteps.

It's been noted so often it's almost a bad cliche, but governments defeat themselves and the Official Opposition is just there to scoop up the inheritance.

If the Conservatives continue to act unapologetically as if they, to lift a Liberal line, reign over their own Cheque Republic, they'll buy themselves only trouble in the Commons and in the election to come.

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