Ignatieff is a rookie, but he's learning fast

Liberal leader struck the right chords in speech to the Quebec party faithful

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Ignatieff is still learning his trade as Liberal leader, and his speech to the party's Quebec wing on Sunday was a reminder that his leadership is a work in progress.

Ignatieff still doesn't understand the difference between a lecture hall full of undergraduates and a convention centre full of political activists. It's one thing to dazzle an adoring group of students with your brilliance, and another to bring a crowd to its feet.

Ignatieff has what it takes; he just isn't there yet. Political science is one thing; political theatre quite another. His respect for the importance of speeches is obvious in the care with which he crafts them. What he hasn't mastered yet is the discipline of delivering the message. At the podium, his eyes are on the page, when they should be on the crowd. This just in, Michael, they have these wonderful things called teleprompters. Get one. The Liberals aren't that broke.

Ignatieff's entourage also oversold expectations for his speech on Sunday, billing it as a major address, a vision speech of Quebec's role in the federation, when it was long on generalities and short on specifics. That was just bad staff work, falling into the expectations trap, and then allowing the media to say the speech was relatively disappointing.

First, he told the Liberals of his intent to bring the party back to the centre, where elections are won in this country, and where enduring Liberal coalitions have been built. "We need a practical idealism," he said. This was an interesting echo of John F. Kennedy's motto: "To be an idealist without illusions."

Under the unlamented leadership of Stéphane Dion, the Liberals tilted too far to the left, for example, with a Green Shift that couldn't be sold, and a leader who couldn't sell it.

"We are a great party of the centre," Ignatieff said, quoting Sir Wilfrid Laurier to the effect that a party of the centre can equally be a party of reform, it being necessary to hold office to achieve anything.

And that was Ignatieff's second point, his core message, the promise to bring Quebec and the Liberal Party back to power in Ottawa. The Liberals, he said, are "a party in which Quebecers have always played a preponderant role." Ah, the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chrétien. The party built on Ontario and Quebec.

"Quebecers don't deserve to be in permanent opposition in Ottawa," he declared. "Their place is in power."

This was the only line in the speech interrupted by a standing ovation. If there is one message Liberals appreciate, it is the promise of power.

And here was Ignatieff's third message, as he deftly played the identity card, saying he saw no contradiction between being a Quebecer and a Canadian, adding he didn't care which identity Quebecers chose first, as long as they chose both. This is not a message that would play well in Ontario, where they see themselves as Canadians first, but it plays well here, where there is dual "appartenance," a sense of belonging to both Quebec and Canada. Ignatieff spoke of "the liberty of belonging" to both. A very elegant turn of phrase.

Ignatieff has legitimate credentials in this regard, since he had been intending to bring a Québécois-nation resolution to the floor of the last Liberal leadership convention in Montreal in December 2006. It would have been very divisive inside the Liberal tent, pitting the Trudeau wing of the party against more moderate elements. As it happened, Stephen Harper saved the Liberals the trouble when he proposed his own Québécois nation resolution in the House the previous week, taking the Liberals off the hook and giving the Bloc no choice but to support it.

And this led to Ignatieff's fourth point, a pitch to soft nationalist Bloc voters "to give us a chance to prove what we can do for your family and for you." Rather than calling voting for the Bloc a waste of time and money, as the Conservatives did to disastrous effect last fall, Ignatieff said he understood why voters supported the Bloc as a question of identity, but they also had to understand it wasn't getting them anywhere. This is a direct echo of Harper's campaign theme that the place of Quebecers isn't in the stands, but on the ice.

No speech before a partisan crowd would be complete without a bit of partisanship, and Ignatieff obliged with a riff that "my deepest instinct about the prime minister is that he's a divider." But there was a sense that was largely playing to the crowd, a bit of red meat.

Indeed, there was a clear sense from Ignatieff's subsequent news conference that his message is one of building a larger tent, of proposing a post-partisan framework. In explaining his approach to Quebec, he even quoted Sir John A. Macdonald's famous line about treating French Canadians as a nation and they will act like one, treat them as a faction and they will behave as one. So, a Liberal leader got to wrap himself in the mantle of the great Conservative founding father.

Ignatieff even had a kind word for Brian Mulroney, whom he had called to wish a happy 70th birthday last week, speaking of him as someone he disagreed with, but "who did good things for Canada." Not only was this a graceful note, it was in contrast, as Ignatieff well knew, with Harper, who is prisoner of his own policy against having any contact with his Conservative predecessor until the Karlheinz Schreiber matter is cleared by the present inquiry, and thus could not even call to wish Mulroney well on a milestone birthday.

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