Michael Ignatieff landed unexpectedly in the inner sanctums of Canada’s Liberal party almost four years ago, like a rock hurled through a stained glass window. Not for him the mundane details of proclaiming his leadership intentions, and waiting his turn. He propelled himself from backbencher to crown prince to leader in a series of daring self-actualized leaps. The prime ministership of the country is next on his dance card.
Last week, at a three-day convention in a spanking new convention centre on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver, Ignatieff officially brought peace to the internal blood feuds that had torn the party apart under the preceding stewardships of John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion.
The highbrow newcomer dominated the convention which welcomed him as the party’s new leader—Moses armed with a GPS (God Positioning System)—while he used the occasion to sound off. His acceptance speech that celebrated the vote which confirmed his command of the party was a rousing performance—though he was the only candidate on the ballot. It was a fitting coronation, even if no puff of white smoke could be detected.
His speech was a bravura performance. The cadence of his words matched his body language, as he set out his agenda for a Canadian future based on his consensus style of leadership—in the context of his natural grace and sprinklings of literary allusions. What better equipment to face the long odds of leading a political party in this time of economic turmoil, than to be a certified world-class public intellectual with chutzpah to burn.
A typical passage from his acceptance speech accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of every misdemeanour except spreading a leprosy pandemic. “For three years you have played province against province, group against group, region against region, individual against individual,” he charged. “When your power was threatened last November, you unleashed a national unity crisis and saved yourself only by sending Parliament home. Mr. Harper, you have failed us. If you can’t unite Canadians, if you can’t appeal to the best in us—we can. We Liberals can build a federalism based on co-operation, not on confrontation.”
The former Harvard professor’s run for the Liberal crown has been remarkable. The Ignatieff victory was based on the identical motivations that fuelled his several previous careers. He believes that the world exists to be put in order, so that its scattered causes make sense and can be mobilized.
His original run for the Liberal crown in 2006 pegged him as an accident-prone candidate, but he has since morphed into the role. Every word of every declaration at this convention had been carefully programmed by his retinue of a dozen talented advisers—really, a private think tank—that served him well.
His assignment now is to ride herd over the witches’ brew remnants of a once-great political movement and march them back into power. He can only succeed by repairing the collateral damage inflicted by his sad-sack predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who was bounced out of office after solidifying his reputation as a politician who will never set the world on fire, except by accident. By the time he left, Canada’s Natural Governing Party was down to a puny paid-up membership of around 50,000—from a 2003 total of half a million.
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