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Analyzing Ignatieff

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The way in which he became the new Liberal leader reveals a lot about the man.

Straight Goods

ignatieffThe way in which Michael Ignatieff gained his leadership tells us a lot about who he is and what he wants. As the historian Ramsay Cook wrote at the end of January 2009, "Every Liberal Leader since Laurier had notable ministerial experience and each was elected by a convention. Mr. Ignatieff can claim neither, having the distinction of being the first leader to have been defeated in convention."

The Liberal party, like other Canadian political parties, elects its leaders according to a settled constitutional process—in this case, by delegated convention. A convention was planned for May 2009 to choose a successor to Stéphane Dion. But the process was sideswiped by technically correct but improper means.

His judgement is too often the victim of his ambition.

The party's constitutional provision for selection of an "interim" leader could not have been intended as the means of selecting a permanent leader. In that case, there would have been no need for use of the term "interim" in the constitution.

An "interim" leader, by definition, is a temporary leader filling the gap between leaders selected by delegated conventions. This was the case, for example, when Bill Graham was chosen as interim leader of the party in 2006, following the resignation of Paul Martin. It would have been the case if any person other than the three official candidates for the leadership had been chosen for the interim period leading to the May convention.

But there can be no doubt that the intention of Michael Ignatieff and his supporters in the party was to make him permanent leader of the party in December 2008. The "interim" label was a transparent deception: since both other candidates had withdrawn, there could be no contest unless other serious candidates were to come forward.

None was likely to do so, and none would pose any threat to this "interim" leader. The party organization was now under his control.

Michael Ignatieff's installation as leader of the party revealed an excessive ambition for power in the man and his closest advisors. The political circumstances of November/December 2008 were unusual, but they did not warrant the use of exceptional measures to meet them.

The appropriate choice would have been another MP, selected to serve until the Vancouver convention. At least two MPs, John McCallum and Ralph Goodale, were frequently mentioned in public discussion of the leadership crisis; or others might have been recruited. Instead Ignatieff allowed, or encouraged, his aides to ignore the spirit of the party's constitution to achieve his goal.

The Globe and Mail described this as "a bulldozer charge at the leadership." Others might describe it as a takeover or a coup. It was an act of disrespect for the constitution of the Liberal party. Michael Ignatieff was ruthless in his pursuit of power. That matters.

The most worrying aspect of Michael Ignatieff's political beliefs, as they emerged in his writings after 9/11, was his willingness to accept and counsel the use of morally dubious or democratically unacceptable methods by political leaders whose goals he shared — his choice of "the lesser evil", as he put it, in his support for the governments of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their "war on terror".

In Kosovo and Iraq, he promoted aggression conducted beyond and in violation of the United Nations Charter, spending little effort to weigh the consequences of launching invasions that violated international law.

After 9/11, he advocated the use of preventive detention, "coercive interrogation" of prisoners, and selective assassination — at a time when these policies were being used and systematically abused by the Bush administration. These were large transgressions, well beyond the mere takeover of a democratic political party – but in those cases, after all, he was only an apologist, not a participant. Nevertheless his views are indications of a certain political spirit.

Michael Ignatieff is willing to counsel — and to use — means in pursuit of his goals that show disrespect for moral and constitutional limits. He lacks democratic restraint. He promotes himself as a tough guy — which may not always be bluff. He wants to use power, without too much anxiety about how it is used. Canadians within and beyond the Liberal party should be anxious about where he might take the country if he were to become prime minister.

Ignatieff places himself squarely in the Canadian progressive, reformist tradition. But his predisposition towards the interests of the powerful belies that claim. His judgement is too often the victim of his ambition.

Does this not mean that I endorse Stephen Harper or Jack Layton as alternatives to Michael Ignatieff as prime minister? No. For Canadians, the case of Ignatieff represents a deeper dilemma. Harper offers us the same dilemma.

The office of prime minister is a powerful one, with too few institutional restraints upon it. It is almost beyond the law, and it presides over a regime of courtiers. In Canada and Britain, the Prime Ministership is an "elective monarchy". The prize of office is tempting to individuals who sense the ominous powers that it now possesses. It dominates and distorts our politics.

In this centralized universe, prime ministers and their advisors are preoccupied with polling, marketing, news management, and symbolic acts aimed at the retention of power, often in neglect of the public good. They possess huge resources with which they can do as they please.

The leaders of opposition parties, seeking office for themselves, mirror the assumptions about power of the prime ministers they oppose. When Michael Ignatieff tells us, repeatedly, that "I will decide", he reflects – he takes for granted – his own unilateral power in the party. The Liberal party, he assumes, is his to command.

Canada's political parties must concern themselves with constraining the power of the prime minister; and equally, they must examine how their own leaders are chosen, assessed and constrained. The Liberal party of Canada urgently needs such reflection and restraint.

Under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff the party is unlikely to get that self-examination. The country will suffer in that failure

This article is excerpted from Ignatieff's World Updated: Iggy goes to Ottawa (James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2009). For the full account preceding this excerpt, please see the book, available for sale at your local bookseller or at and


Denis Smith has written definitive books about Liberal cabinet minister Walter Gordon and Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker. He has had a distinguished career as a professor of Canadian politics and as a university administrator.