Michael Ignatieff would be wise to watch his mouth

Liberal candidate keeps getting into trouble for his statements

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The Gazette, Monday, October 16, 2006

Michael Ignatieff is a very smart guy. But there is a difference between school smart and street smart. Ignatieff isn't at Harvard anymore, he's in a leadership campaign. And he is rapidly using up his allotment of unforced errors, to the point where his judgment, or lack of it, is becoming a serious issue among Liberals.

First, Ignatieff said he wasn't losing any sleep over civilian casualties in southern Lebanon during the summer war between Hezbollah and the Israelis. Then he laid down a hard line on conditions for Quebec's access to independence. Clear rules were needed, he said, "because we want to avoid civil war." He quickly added we would avoid one.

Then, in his campaign manifesto, titled Agenda for Nation Building, he opened a huge Pandora's box by proposing a constitutional amendment that would recognize Quebec as a nation within Canada, even though this would be essentially meaningless. He also suggested a new "constitutional division of powers among aboriginal, territorial, provincial and federal governments, with clear procedures for sharing jurisdictions that overlap."

Even by the standards of academia, this is a breathtakingly naive proposition. The basic bargain of confederation is the division of powers in the constitution. Ottawa's powers, including "peace, order and good government," are in Section 91, and provincial jurisdictions are in Section 92 of the constitution. That's how it's been since 1867.

Then, after opening this issue, Ignatieff writes "constitutional review is for the future." In other words, words aren't important.

Well, there's nothing more important than the fundamental law of the land. And in this party, there's nothing with more potential to divide Liberals than the question of Quebec's role in the federation. And it represents a strategic opportunity for Bob Rae to make the point reopening the constitution is a really bad idea.

Then last week, Ignatieff appeared on Radio-Canada's Tout le monde en parle, which tout le monde watches on Sunday night for its cheeky irreverence. For any politician, it's a very high-risk outing, as Ignatieff discovered.

He was trying to make amends for his indifference to civilian casualties when, once again, he went a sentence too far.

"I was a professor of human rights, and I am also a professor of the laws of war," he said, "and what happened in Qana was a war crime and I should have said that. That's clear."

The comment went unnoticed and unremarked by the French-language media, but once it got translated, all hell broke loose in the middle of last week.

Accusing Israel of war crimes is a fairly serious matter. But to make it stick the Israelis would have had to deliberately launch a missile attack on a building in Qana where 28 civilians were killed, rather than targeting a Hezbollah rocket launcher nearby. And the Israelis say it was an accident, so there was no war crime under the Geneva Convention.

In the fallout from his comment, Ignatieff lost his Toronto campaign co-chair, Susan Kadis, who abruptly resigned and wrote him a sharp note saying he should have known better. Kadis is the MP from Thornhill which, in terms of Jewish voters, is to Toronto what Mount Royal is to Montreal. Everyone from the Israeli ambassador to the Canadian Jewish Congress quickly jumped all over Iggy.

But he was not for the turning. At a Toronto news conference last Wednesday, he said: "I believe war crimes were committed in the war in Lebanon. They were committed on both sides."

There's an intellectual stubborn streak about Ignatieff, bordering on obstinacy, that is quite like another Canadian politician - Stephen Harper.

Rather than leaving Ignatieff alone in the hole he dug for himself, Harper dug one of his own, saying Ignatieff's comments were "consistent with the anti-Israeli position taken by virtually all of the candidates for the Liberal leadership. I don't think it's helpful or useful."

Neither were Harper's comments, except to Bob Rae, who was well within his rights to be shocked and appalled, inasmuch as his wife and three daughters are Jewish, and his staunch support of Israel was one of the reasons he left the NDP.

But the larger question is about Ignatieff's judgment. He is achieving a critical mass of gaffes that is prompting Liberals to ask how he would respond under the pressure of an election.

There is such a thing as a tipping point in all campaigns. Ignatieff is getting there.

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