It's Ignatieff's turn

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National Post, Friday, May 1, 2009

In the Liberal party, there are two general rules about filling the leadership. The first, since Sir Wilfrid Laurier's time, is alternation -- l'alternance -- between English-and French-speaking leaders. The second is that a leader usually, though not always, has to wait his turn.

Thus, from Laurier to MacKenzie King, from Louis St. Laurent to Lester Pearson, from Pierre Trudeau to John Turner, from Jean Chretien to Paul Martin, from Stephane Dion to Michael Ignatieff.

Sometimes there are exceptions to one rule or the other -- Trudeau was a francophone, but he didn't have to wait his turn. And sometimes one rule trumps the other, as in 2006, when the Liberal convention decided that it wasn't yet Ignatieff's turn, and ended up with Dion--because it wasn't Bob Rae's turn, either. While Dion was a francophone, he wasn't running as the candidate of alternation, but as the third man -- the guy who wasn't Iggy or Bob. He was an accidental leader, and as events later proved, an accident waiting to happen.

Now, both rules have played to Iggy's favour. He is both the candidate of alternation, and it is very much his turn, as it was Turner's in 1984, Chretien's in 1990 and Martin's in 2003. Indeed, he's the only candidate in a convention that's been transformed into a coronation. And it's not just a love-in for Iggy, but a unity-fest.

After a quarter-century of leadership wars, the Liberals are conspicuously uniting around their new leader at a moment when they are resurgent in the polls, especially in Quebec, and poised to regain power whenever they can arrange for the demise of the minority Conservative government. Every one of Ignatieff's living predecessors, from Turner to Dion, has been given a speaking role at this weekend's convention in Vancouver.

For Ignatieff, it turns out that losing in 2006 was a good thing. The party, and the country, regarded him as a foreigner, who had lived abroad for nearly 30 years, returning to Canada only to offer himself as Liberal leader and prospective prime minister. The effrontery of it was breathtaking. It was Mike Pearson who once observed that Canadians don't like obvious displays of ambition.

And in the Liberal party, it is always better to arrange for a draft, as Ignatieff's supporters did in staging the bloodless palace revolt that resulted in Dion's sudden ouster last December after the Three Stooges coalition failed to seize power.

Ignatieff never thought very much of the idea, having been the very last Liberal to sign on to it. It was a very Canadian coup, constitutionally legal in that it met the test of confidence of the House, but politically illegitimate in that it failed to meet the confidence of the voters, who had just reelected Stephen Harper and roundly rejected Dion.

By then, Ignatieff had been travelling across Canada relentlessly for two years, discovering his country and learning his trade.

He is much the better for it, much better informed about the country and its people, than he would have been had he been able to claim the prize the first time round.

He has also learned, as Sir Wilfrid famously said, that "it is not enough to have principles, we must also have organization." Ignatieff's leadership camp never dispersed, and since December, it has controlled the machinery of a party that has been running on fumes, without ground game or money, sustained only by the enduring equity of the Liberal brand. The unity of the party is a mission accomplished, the rebuilding and refinancing of it remains a work in progress.

For Ignatieff, his acceptance speech tomorrow offers another challenge and opportunity. In a competitive convention, he would have told the party why he should become its leader. In a coronation, he gets to the tell country why he should become prime minister.

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