Saturday, May 29, 2010
A Ghost from the Past
Claiming that it was "a good day for a hanging" Jean Chretien returned to Parliament Hill last week. He proclaimed public service "a very noble life;" and, like most former politicians, he enjoyed being the centre of attention.
Of course, some in the audience were drawing lessons from his time as prime minister. Stephen Harper -- in a remark that revealed more about himself than it did about Chretien -- said, "He knew instinctively what it took to win." Perhaps the lesson Harper took from Chretien also explains why the present prime minister didn't bother to attend the ceremony in the Centre Block two years ago, when they hung Joe Clark's portrait next to Chretien's.
But the man who should really be pondering Chretien's success is Michael Ignatieff. To his credit, Ignatieff is not the dictator Chretien was. But, as Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail last week, anyone trying to mimic "the old lion's tough ways" is taking the wrong lesson. "He was at his best," Martin wrote, "when he was the little guy from Shawinigan, when he stood his ground, at one with the values of everyday people and the country."
It was when Chretien insisted that the Clarity Bill would be passed; when he refused to join George Bush's "coalition of the willing;" and when -- with Paul Martin's help -- he destroyed the "debt wall" which Brian Mulroney and his predecessors had bequeathed to him, that Chretien earned his place in Canadian history. He could mangle both official languages; and (when the pen he gave Queen Elizabeth refused to cooperate) he could mutter "merde" -- a remark which seems to have endeared him to the monarch.
Micheal Ignatieff would do none of these things. But neither will he stand his ground. When he told Mr. Harper his time was up, he then decided to give the prime minister more time. After he said that Quebec's new health care user fee was acceptable, he backtracked and said that it could not stand. And, after saying that the Auditor General should not be allowed to scrutinize MP's expenses, he now says he will accept Ms. Fraser's oversight.
He should have accepted that oversight in the first place. But that is not the point. When Mr. Ignatieff takes a stand, Canadians have come to expect that -- like this country's climate -- it can change quickly and radically. Ignatieff's vacillation is the reason Liberal poll numbers are now in the 25% range.
Ignatieff is a very intelligent and a very articulate man -- in both English and French. But what he lacks is Chretien's political experience. When Chretien became prime minister, he had toiled in Ottawa for nearly thirty years. He had apprenticed under Pierre Trudeau and Mitchell Sharp; and he had served as the Minister of National Revenue, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the President of the Treasury Board, the Minister of Industry Trade and Commerce, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Energy Mines and Resources, the Minister of External Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister. In short, he knew how Ottawa worked.
Michael Ignatieff has had an illustrious career. And he has apprenticed under Issiah Berlin. But he lacks Chretien's experience and Chretien's common touch. Those deficits are becoming more -- not less -- apparent.