Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Insider's Outsider

This past weekend, Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff failed in his bid to become the next leader of the federal Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberal Party is sometimes referred to as Canada’s “natural governing party,” and according to wikipedia, every federal Liberal Party leader since 1896 has gone on to serve as Prime Minister. (Stephane Dion, the party’s new leader, may run against current Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a general election as early as spring 2007.) Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership run, and its failure, say a good deal about Canadians’ ambivalent sentiments toward their prodigal sons and daughters who try to return home after success abroad. It also says a good deal about the “in-group” culture of Canadian politics, and the Liberal Party in particular – something that Mr. Ignatieff knows about, has written about, and ought to have been wary of.

Every country has its democratic foibles – think of electoral boundary gerrymandering in the United States, for example – but one of Canada’s greatest ones is a certain tradition of “backroom” governance, within which elite groups cut deals with each other, on very important issues, without public input. The Liberal Party, naturally, knows all about this kind of operation. According to the Canadian media, Mr. Ignatieff was essentially hand-picked for the leadership run by a small group of Liberal Party powerbrokers, at a dinner party in North Toronto in 2004. (Here's the standard story.) The not-unreasonable idea behind Mr. Ignatieff's run was that his intellectual heft, international profile, and photogenic good looks could recapture some of the spark the Liberals knew under Pierre Elliott Trudeau. From the beginning, though, his campaign was marred by hubris and inexperience. Most obviously, there were the inexplicable gaffes surrounding Israel’s bombing of Qana, Lebanon last summer. (First, Mr. Ignatieff stated that he was “not losing sleep” over the civilian deaths. A few months later, in an interview on French-language Radio Canada, to an audience sometimes thought to be more anti-Israel than the rest of the country, he did an about-face and labeled the bombings “war crimes.” Specifically, what he said was “I was a professor of human rights and I am also a professor of the laws of war, and what happened in Qana was a war crime and I should have said that.”)

Ultimately, though, what killed Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership bid was that none of the other leadership candidates threw their support his way at the Liberal Leadership Convention, as successive rounds of voting winnowed the candidates down. They did not do so, in large part, because of the impression that Mr. Ignatieff had been parachuted into a star leadership role by a group of Liberal Party insiders behind closed doors. Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership run triggered Canadian frustration at the persistence and seeming impenetrability of the country’s “insider” political power structure – and few convention delegates who were not actually at the famous dinner party in North Toronto wanted anything to do with the candidate those diners chose.

The irony is that Mr. Ignatieff wrote a book in 2000 called The Rights Revolution, which discussed the ways in which Canadian “executive federalism” had broken down in the 1990s in the face of more and more persistent demands for democratic inclusion by a broader range of interests. (This is my review of his book.) Speaking of national unity, Mr. Ignatieff colorfully suggested that the “high priests of federalism,” who for 125 years had “interpret[ed] the sacred texts and wave[d] the incense of rhetoric in the direction of the congregation,” had completely lost control of the “rituals of unity” by the time of the 1995 Quebec Referendum. Mr. Ignatieff should have realized, too, that the high priests of the natural governing party of Canada could no longer count on the obeisance of its members. They could, perhaps, even count on their rage.

11 comments:

Caleb said...

Let me first say that every blog could use more discussion of Canadian politics.

Secondly, I'm interested that you feel Ignatieff's loss was due to his being a perceived "insider". I actually read it the other way. Ignatieff was perceived as an outsider, and the liberal leadership convention was a circling of the wagons that left him out in the cold. The fascinating thing to me about the race was that both Rae and Ignatieff were semi-outsiders to the federal liberal party, and they BOTH failed to garner much more support in the conference itself. Instead, Dion - an insider since Chretien, was able to bring enough liberal insiders into his camp to surpass the two front runners and become the leader. (If we're looking at it cynically)

If anything, I'd say Ignatieff was hurt by the perennial Canadian frustration with being told that Canada's not a "big enough stage" to succeed on. I've heard people express frustration with Ignatieff multiple times by saying, "Why does he deserve to be leader when he's been out of the country for 20 years?" I think there's a level of frustration (nationalism?) that doesn't like people who haven't paid their dues in Canada. There's a sense that he went off because Canada wasn't good enough for him, and now he's back - but ONLY if he gets to run the country.

I actually don't think that my analysis conflicts with yours. I would say that the sense in which Ignatieff was an "insider" was that he was in a circle of Canadians who could come back to the country and run for the leadership with some credibility, and that he was invited to do so. At the same time, however, he's an "outsider" with respect to MOST of the federal liberal party and to Canadians in general.

Trevor Morrison said...

Very interesting stuff. I haven't been following these developments as closely as I should have, but the western Canadian in me wonders about the geographic breakdown of the support for the candidates. Specifically, do we know who the westerners at the convention tended to support? (I assume it varied from the first to fourth ballots.) I ask because, rightly or wrongly, westerners often feel isolated from the power centers of Canadian politics. On that score, at least, neither Ignatieff nor Dion would seem to be an ideal candidate.

Caleb said...

I couldn't say anything in particular about regional vote breakdowns, except that there weren't (to my recollection) any "westerners" on the leadership ballot; Rae, Kennedy, Findlay-Hall, and even Dryden are all Ontarians (I think). I'm not sure where Ignatieff represents, and Dion is Quebecois. Of course - I think there were some parts of the Quebecois wing of the PLC that objected to Dion because of his "hardline" stance on sovereignty (compared with Ignatieff and perhaps others)

Jamie said...

Im from Western Canada (actually west of western Canada) and Id say that the previous commenters worry of lack of western representation is a bit misleading. Currently there is alienation within western Canada due to one part of Western Canada's self appointed role as mouthpiece. Socially conservative, this part of Canada feels that it speaks for the values of all Western Canadians and this is obviously not true. West of the west, we've had a hard time here with the weather and dont really believe our oil government when it comes to environmental policies or their social beliefs (which contradict strongly with most of Canada).
As for Iggy, he's an outsider plain and simple. He's lived the majority of his life outside of Canada and returns after 30 years to run the place cause noone here can do it properly? I dont think its a case of Canada not allowing Iggy success as much as it is a case of Iggy not really being Canadian outside of his citizenship. I know that Iggy definitely didnt represent very many people's views and a lot of people were concerned by the stuff that came out of his mouth. He supported Iraq and scolded the then PM Chretien for not towing the line. It isnt a case of being an outsider its a case of not being intuned. I doubt it if the US or any country would be happy to have a person return after living most of their life abroad and claim they should be head of state because they know best. For the record its great that Dion won. The delegates chose him and we arent getting a prefab politician of the usual fabric. At least not Iggy

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