Are Canadian politics dull? It’s a criticism lobbed at the folks in Ottawa on a regular basis and at those of us who are actively engaged in politics in this country. Canadians gaze longingly at the rough-and-tumble politics of our American neighbours. We hang “HOPE” posters of Obama on our walls, and secretly watch clips of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann on Youtube. Canadian politics just aren’t as sexy. Even Stephen Harper believes as much, having recently admitted to the Toronto Star that he watches American newscasts exclusively.
Our lacklustre political situation is one of the reasons why I was so excited about Michael Ignatieff’s entry into politics. This is a man who has written 17 books, who has shown to possess an imaginative political mind, and has built a career thinking about matters of identity, human rights, and national projects. This is a man who has never shied away from controversy or bold statements on public policy.
In other words, I have always felt that Ignatieff had an inspiring political imagination. And nowhere is this more evident than in Luke Savage’s excellent interview, published by The Varsity, in which Ignatieff shows himself to be an eloquent and nuanced thinker on matters of federalism and national identity.
So what the hell happened? Why is Ignatieff sitting 15 points behind Harper, whose only capacity for political imagination is how to envision his next propaganda scheme to divide Canadians and dismantle our national institutions?
Former prime minister Paul Martin was at an event at U of T last week, and he offered some insight. I was used to Martin being dull, but at the talk, his ideas were compelling. Martin offered an inspiring vision for a truly global commitment to Africa, a commitment that has been abandoned by a number of Western countries including our own. He also offered a pragmatic and game-changing approach to how the government treats Aboriginal Peoples, and how through a number of initiatives—including an education project co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—Martin is continuing to make an impact out-of-office. Yet where was all this when he was Prime Minister?
When both men lamented on-stage that youth were not getting involved in politics, I asked if maybe the reason for the lack of interest was that our leaders aren’t giving us the kind of proposals that Martin had just outlined.
When Martin was prime minister, he was criticised on a daily basis for being dull. He was even called Mr. Dithers by The Economist. However, now that he’s out of office, he’s anything but.
Compare this with Ignatieff. If the Canadian news media is to be believed, the once-bold Iggy has become the hopelessly banal Iffy. Sound familiar?
But I have hope. Actually, I have a great deal of hope. The Liberal leadership has been shocked into action by the doomsday scenario in which they are currently living. It is time for the calls of columnists across the country to be answered, and for Ignatieff to present some bold policy proposals that will help Canadians recognise his national vision as one unmatched by other Canadian political leaders.
The risk-averse Liberal strategy that has characterised the past few months doesn’t work. Plain and simple. It’s time to be bold. And I have faith in Ignatieff, faith that he will stop deferring to cautious advisors. Faith that he will engage Canadians at the level where he is strongest: that of our political imagination.
The country’s most successful and time-honoured leaders have been the ones who have presented us with a vision for the future. They have known, as leaders, that Canadians need first to believe in it to see it. They know that our country is existentially rooted in a national vision.
When Ignatieff starts to engage Canadians at this level, I have no doubt that he will achieve enduring success.
Gabe De Roche is the president of Liberals at the University of Toronto