November 17, 2006
Canada's Liberals Search for a LeaderBy Paul Jackson
Watching their liberal American Congressional Democrats triumph at the polls, Canadian Liberals now are looking for a star candidate to take over the reins of their party and lead them back into power. But it's far from certain they will find such a candidate and uncertain whether they'll be back in government anytime soon.
Since Prime Minister Paul Martin was defeated at the polls last January and the Conservatives under Stephen Harper formed a minority government, the Liberals have desperately been trying to rebuild, believing the Conservative win was just a fluke. That attitude is easy to understand, for during the 20th century the Liberals governed for some 70 years or more, with the Conservatives breaking into their rule only for short stints, the most recent — and most successful — being Brian Mulroney's two majority governments between the years 1984—93.
Two of the star candidates the party hierarchy hoped would lead them back to power backed out of the race. They are Frank McKenna, former premier of New Brunswick and until the Conservatives took over, Canadian ambassador to Washington, and John Manley who at various times served as industry minister, foreign affairs minister finance minister and deputy premier in federal Liberal governments. Both were on the party's right, and both cringed at the anti—Americanism exhibited by Martin, and to an extent his predecessor, Jean Chretien. Indeed, just weeks ago McKenna called for Canada to join the U.S. missile shield program.
As the Liberals head towards their Dec. 2 convention in Montreal the omens are not at all positive. An opinion poll earlier this month showed 60% of respondents believe they are not ready to be returned to government anytime soon. Other factors stemming from the leadership campaign may harden that perspective.
So far, the leadership race has been more about personalities than philosophy and policy, with candidates being notably polite to each other in debates, although there have been the occasional flare—ups.
Until a month or so ago the 'dream' candidate for the Liberals was internationally—known academic Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff was parachuted into a Toronto riding for the 2006 federal election — much to the ire of local party members — and was painted as a new version of Pierre Trudeau, the charismatic prime minister who came to power in 1978 and, except for a few months in 1979—80 when Progressive Conservative Joe Clark won a shaky minority government, dominated the political scene until he retired in 1984. Two of Trudeau's heroes were Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro, with Castro being an honorary pallbearer at Trudeau's funeral.
Ignatieff is generally referred to as a Harvard professor, but besides teaching at Harvard he has also taught at Cambridge, Oxford the University of London, the London School of Economics, and the University of California.
He has written a wide range of books on subjects as diverse as the Scottish Enlightenment to warfare to the English penal system, and a family history. In Britain, he produced an acclaimed documentary series on nationalism for BBC—TV. Of note is the fact that he supported the American liberation of Iraq, which the Liberal party and government tenaciously opposed.
Initially, the big knock against Ignatieff was that he has spent almost all of the past 30 years outside Canada, mainly in the U.S.A. and Britain. But in recent weeks he has made comments and policy statements which may well have undermined his campaign beyond repair.
When asked if he would still run as a Liberal candidate in the next federal election if he didn't win the leadership, he replied he would consider that when he knew who the new leader was. Hence, he wanted the big job or he was off back to academia. Later he softened that answer, a habit he seems to have adopted when caught out on a sticky question.
Initially when asked about civilian deaths due to Israeli raids against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, he replied he 'wasn't losing any sleep' over the situation. Amidst harsh criticism he quickly backtracked on that statement, and accused Israel of committing war crimes. That got Ignatieff into even more hot water than his first assessment.
Then came the worst gaffe of all when he proclaimed Quebec should be recognized as 'a nation within Canada.' That delighted the huge Quebec separatist movement and appalled everyone else. Two widespread opinion polls have found more than 40% of Canadians would not vote Liberal come the next election if a Liberal government would symbolically recognize Quebec as a nation within a country. Ignatieff then once again corrected himself by saying he did not intend to mean he would give that notion official recognition in the Canadian constitution.
But the harm has likely already been done. The issue of Quebec independence is undoubtedly the most explosive issue in Canadian politics. The separatist Parti Quebecois provincial party has held power twice, and its 'federal' wing, the Bloc Quebecois, holds 54 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. During Chretien's reign as prime minister, the Parti Quebecois, then in government, only narrowly lost a referendum in 1995 calling for independence.
The second strongest candidate in the race is former Ontario New Democrat (Socialist) premier Bob Rae. It wasn't until after Martin lost the January election and announced he was resigning the leadership that Rae suddenly surfaced and proclaimed he had lost confidence in socialism and had been moving towards the Liberals for time time. Then he announced he had joined the Liberal party and was running for the leadership. Opinion polls have shown him battling for popularity against Ignatieff on often equal ground.
Rae's flaw is that his five years as Ontario premier between 1990—95 were disastrous. The province became the highest taxed jurisdiction in North America, and government spending went wild. At one point, with Ontario seemingly headed for bankruptcy, Rae ordered all government employees to take 10 days off work without pay, in order to save money. These were mockingly referred to as 'Rae Days'. Labour strife was rampant, even though the bedrock support for the New Democrats came from the unions.
Rae now says he has learned from his mistakes, and even talks about tax cuts for individuals and business in order to spark the economy and make industry more competitive. Harper's Conservatives are convinced memories are long among Ontario voters and the bitter days of Rae's premiership are not forgotten. They believe if Rae wins the leadership, they'll be able to make substantial inroads into Ontario.
The third serious candidate is former federal cabinet minister Stephane Dion, who held the posts of intergovernmental affairs minister and more recently environment minister. Dion, too, is an academic. Included in his credentials is a stint in 1990—91 as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
As political commentators have become increasingly disillusioned with Ignatieff, they have become increasingly more impressed with Dion, who, when the race began wasn't seen as a strong contender at all.
Soft—spoken and polite, Dion is actually quite a courageous individual who is detested by the separatists in his home province. He devised the Clarity Act which would force the wording on any future referendum to be starkly clear rather than muted or likely to misguide uneducated voters. The separatists often talk about 'sovereignty—association' meaning Quebec would be an independent nation but still maintain many benefits of being part of Canada. Dion has spoken out warning middle of the road Quebecers or wavering voters that this would not be so, and independence would mean Quebec would become a very small and insignificant nation floundering around on its own, and likely having to try and renegotiate international agreements from which it benefitted while part of Canada, such as the free trade pact with the U.S. Being cut out of the free trade pact, if only for a period of time, would spell economic disaster for the new nation.
He has also challenged charges a 'fiscal imbalance' exists between Ottawa and the provinces, particularly Quebec and Ontario. Fiscal imbalance refers to the argument the federal government taxes too much and returns too little to the provinces in the form of transfer payments. It is a heated topic in Canada. Some economists and political observers blame the provincial governments themselves saying they spend way beyond their means and beyond what is necessary and then want Ottawa to bail them out rather than face the wrath of their own voters by cutting spending. Dion insists the 'fiscal imbalance' argument, at least in Quebec, is a ploy by the separatist movement to again make Quebecers feel they are shortchanged in Confederation.
Dion, who was viewed as perhaps the most honest senior member in the Chretien/Martin scandal—ridden government, faces one major obstacle: he is little known outside of his own province. His English, too, is somewhat halting at times. Whether a Dion—led Liberal party would be beneficial or detrimental to the Conservatives is something of a riddle. They might well find it beneficial in English Canada, but detrimental in Quebec where they now hold only 10 of Quebec's 75 House of Commons seats and are working hard for a major breakthrough in that province come the next election.
Into this mix come two other somewhat serious candidates, former hockey star Ken Dryden and former Ontario provincial education minister Gerard Kennedy.
Dryden was a goalkeeper with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s, and penned an authoritative book on hockey entitled 'The Game'. Unlike most hockey players, he is considered to be a cerebral individual. He held a minor cabinet post in the former Liberal government. As an aside, Stephen Harper himself is busy writing a book on hockey when his time away from prime ministerial duties permits.
Kennedy actually was unknown outside of Ontario, but obviously well—known with his home province. In his younger days he was considered a Far Left radical, but appears to have moderated his thinking with age.
A puzzling aspect of this race is that while one survey showed Ignatieff the most popular candidate, a second survey showed him coming in fourth if a second ballot takes place — which it likely will — with Dion in first place, Rae in second, and Kennedy in third.
From an American point of view, the best canididate either would be Michael Ignatieff, who, as mentioned earlier, has spent much of his professional life teaching in the U.S.A. and who supported the American Liberation of Iraq, or, strange as it may seem at first, Quebec's Stephane Dion, who was a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute for a year. Both are fair—minded, rational men, and neither has an anti—American streak. Despite
Rae's supposed change of heart from socialist to Liberal, no one really knows what his inner—most views may be — some suspect to merge the socialist New Democrats with the Liberals, creating a monolithic party the Conservatives could rarely, if ever, beat. Kennedy couldn't be trusted at all.
Yet if there is one point that should hearten Americans about the Canadian Liberal leadership race is that not a single candidate has criticized Washington, never mind uttering anti—American slurs. There is a far different attitude than that seen during the January election campaign when the Martin Liberals tried to ride to power by blaming all the nation's ills — from trade issues to rising gun crime to environmental problems — on the U.S.A.
Perhaps today's candidates have realized that tactic didn't work, or maybe Canada's Liberal party really is remodelling itself.
Paul Jackson is a veteran, award—winning political journalist who has covered North American and world politics for many of Canada's major metropolitan daily newspapers. He is now Editor Emeritus of the Calgary Sun, in Calgary, Alberta.