It is often said that a week in politics is an eternity. Consider the past two weeks in the life and fortunes of Michael Ignatieff, and this dictum seems doubly apt.
In a recent column, I had criticized Michael Ignatieff on three main fronts: I argued that the Liberal leader needed to proceed from criticism to proposals if voters were to consider him a serious alternative, that he should be more candid about the failures of his own party in the past if they were to see him as credible and trustworthy and lastly, that he needed to focus on the principles and reasons behind policy pronouncements if he was to convince us of his sincerity and passion.
Since then, the leader of the opposition has made major strides on all three fronts, and in near-perfect coordination with the collapse in support for the governing Tories following Stephen Harper’s high-handed prorogation of Parliament.
On prorogation, Ignatieff has gone from attack to alternative, offering thoughtful, clear, and compelling proposals to limit the Prime Minister’s power to prorogue the House of Commons. What’s more, the Liberals, in highlighting Harper’s countless confrontations with independent watchdogs, have linked prorogation to the larger narrative at play, namely the prime minister’s autocratic drive to challenge and undermine the democratic checks that constrain his power.
Secondly, when pressed on his party’s own past abuses of power, namely Jean ChrÃ©tien’s shutting down of the explosive Somalia inquiry investigating abuses by Canadian soldiers, Ignatieff did a strange thing: he acknowledged his party’s role in degrading the institutions he now defends, admitting that “there are lessons for every political party.” Imagine, a politician being honest with voters on his party’s past failures, and vowing now to turn the tide. A politician treating us as adults, with the discerning capacity to judge a man on his own record, rather than a predecessor’s. A funny sight indeed, in the world of Canadian politics.
In the field of ideals the Liberal leader also seems to have risen to the fore lately. Putting his eloquence and oratory to use, Ignatieff, in the pose of a statesman, has in the last two weeks waged a rhetorical war against Harper’s steady attack on the democratic foundations of this country, calling the Prime Minister “disrespectful of the institutions that keep us free,” and pledging, as his possible successor, to uphold the values and institutions that “keep this country democratic.”
Indeed, Ignatieff has some noticeable bounce in his step of late, and a flush colour in his cheeks. Appearing outside the shuttered Commons chamber Jan. 25 for his press conference highlighting prorogation, he spoke with clarity and confidence, passion and authority, even wit. For the first time in months in fact, he seemed credible and compelling, with an air of intellectual swagger about him that seemed almost Trudeau-esque. In short, he seemed, for the first time in a long time, a prime minister-in-waiting.
The Tories began the new year by proroguing the House and the Liberals have swiftly and cleverly counterattacked. Appearing on Parliament Hill with their full caucus on the day the Commons was to resume, the Grits have launched a series of public policy roundtables to be held throughout this month and the next, hearing from non-partisan experts on the policy failures of the Harper government.
First, the strategy, whether intentionally or otherwise, holds a timely pedagogic purpose. It publicly showcases to voters the important work done by parliamentarians, and implicitly reminds citizens that the work of the House has been stopped by the partisan machinations of Stephen Harper. Second, from a wider angle, the topics explored by the forums &- democratic governance, women’s issues, the environment, the economy, and so forth &- are carefully crafted to target the government’s vulnerabilities, and to provide the Liberals a platform which offers credible alternatives.
While it’s too early to judge definitively whether the Liberals are learning the lessons imposed by their political purgatory, Ignatieff seems to have found his footing at precisely the moment the government is on its knees, severely weakened by the prorogation uproar and tied with the Liberals in the polls. In short, at the same time as voters are increasingly grasping about for an alternative to the Harper government, Ignatieff is increasingly showing signs of offering one. The next few months will be ones to watch.