What a royal foul-up!

Why is Michael Ignatieff having such a hard time learning his job?

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The Gazette, Thursday, May 6, 2010

What was Iggy thinking?

It's a question that has arisen all too frequently in the year since Michael Ignatieff has been confirmed as leader of the Liberal Party.

The latest in a series of strategic and tactical errors was his call for MichaŽlle Jean's term as governor-general to be extended by a year or two.

It seems Ignatieff was asked for his views on the vice-regal succession by the Canadian secretary to the queen, acting on instructions of the prime minister.

Not content to convey his advice as leader of the opposition in private, Ignatieff put out a press release on Sunday morning, gave a television interview, and called a news conference in the lobby of the Ch‚teau Laurier.

Not only is it hard to know what he was thinking, it's even harder to know what he would get out of it.

It is unprecedented for any political leader to divulge what amounts to a private consultation with the crown. No one puts the queen in an embarrassing position. Her majesty would not be amused.

Then, what does MichaŽlle Jean think about the possibility of her tenure at Rideau Hall being extended? Rideau Hall, tight lipped, had no comment. Suffice it to say that any such prospect has been scuppered by Ignatieff going public with his advice. She has already announced she expects to be moving on when her five-year term is up in September. The hail-and-farewell tour has already begun. Just last Saturday, there was a rousing musical tribute for her at the Governor-General's Awards gala. The National Arts Centre rocked with applause. Ignatieff was among those who joined in a standing ovation for her.

The very next day, Ignatieff praised her as a role model for visible minorities, official languages and women, and declared: "I am calling on Stephen Harper to reconsider his decision to replace her."

Well, he's replacing her because her term is expiring and is not being extended, although the terms of some of her predecessors, from Vincent Massey and Georges Vanier, to Jeanne Sauve and Adrienne Clarkson, were extended. But even if Harper had been inclined to keep her on for a year or two, he wouldn't be now. Nor should he, in the circumstances of Iggy's gambit. By going public with his advice, he has compromised her impartiality. What if the prime minister asked for another prorogation, and the governor-general were disinclined? This has never happened, but in the circumstances it would be interpreted as Iggy's reward for endorsing her as his pick for G-G.

You see where this goes - nowhere. And you see what Ignatieff gets out of it - nothing. So, why didn't he see it? And why did his staff allow him to pull such a brain cramp?

This raises questions about Ignatieff's political instincts and judgment, and whether this fits as part of a larger pattern.

Every leader is entitled to a learning curve, but Ignatieff is accumulating a critical mass of unforced errors.

First, he went to the Liberal caucus last summer and announced that Harper's time was up, and tried to force an election no one wanted. Not surprisingly, his poll numbers tanked.

From the organized chaos of his office, run by frat-house rules, Ignatieff then had the good sense to bring in a professional political operative, Peter Donolo, as his chief of staff. Donolo then put in place a staff of top talent from the formerly warring Chrťtien and Martin wings of the Liberal Party.

But with a top-flight staff, there could be no further excuses for the leader. If he couldn't raise his game, he would have no one to blame but himself.

But his troubles continued. Ignatieff has lost his own motion on women's re-productive health, deserted by the pro-life caucus of his own party. His follow-up has been a warning to his caucus of a whipped vote on the long-gun registry, which is interpreted as an empty threat. When Quebec announced a health-care head tax in its budget, Iggy first said he had no problem with it, only to be flipped by his caucus and then to announce a stout defence of the principles of the Canada Health Act, Liberal legacy legislation.

At the Liberal thinkers' conference in Montreal, Ignatieff gave a strange closing address, putting down markers on day care, access to universities, the deficit, and corporate taxes, issues that hadn't really come up at a meeting that was a conspicuous success. He succeeded only in stepping on his own message.

Ignatieff is still new to this game, still learning on the job, but at a certain point it's fair to ask whether he gets it.

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