Monday, November 02, 2009

Playing for Keeps

Michael Ignatieff made two key personnel changes during the month of October. He replaced his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Cordere, with former astronaut Marc Garneau; and he replaced his chief of staff, Ian Davey -- one of the team which went to Boston and asked him to return to Canada -- with Jean Chretien's former director of communications, Peter Donolo. Both appointments underscore the fact that Mr. Ignatieff has had trouble making the transition from public intellectual to leader of a political party.

But, as James Travers pointed out last week in the Toronto Star, Ignatieff is not the first leader to have a difficult -- sometimes bruising -- transition to the centre ring of national politics. "It took Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney a term in office to build teams able to sustain their momentum. Paul Martin failed to turn his leadership team into a cohesive administration and paid the ultimate political price." And Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's guide to political victory, went even further. Claiming that Ignatieff needed a history lesson, he wrote in the Globe and Mail that the Liberal leader "has been imitating Mr. Harper so closely" that he should "take solace from the fact that the Conservative leader bounced back."

Both changes show that Ignatieff is learning how to play for keeps. The essential problem in Liberal strategy up to this point has been the assumption that Mr. Harper's intemperate nature will eventually lead him to the guillotine. That may yet happen. But Canadians have also consistently shown that -- while they remain interested in who they are voting for -- they also want to know what they are voting for. And, on this second score, the Liberals have offered nothing. Unlike Stephane Dion, who offered Canadians a radical platform for the future, the post-Dion Liberals have promoted no new ideas.

It is more than ironic that a man of ideas seems to have none at his disposal. Until the party has the courage to do a thoroughly critical post-mortem of its recent failures, there will be no changes in its fortunes. The time and place for that post-mortem is the policy conference which has been scheduled for early in the new year. It will be Ignatieff's task to lead an intellectual renewal of his party. His past history suggests that he is the man for the job. But that job will only get done if the Liberals have the courage to admit their failures and reject what some see as short cuts to the brass ring.

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