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Learning from Ignatieff's #fail

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I was in Toronto and Ottawa last week to launch my book critiquing Michael Ignatieff's career as a public intellectual. Coincidentally, Peter C. Newman's book on Ignatieff's disastrous tenure as Liberal leader was also released last week. Much of the media discussion has focused on Newman's pronouncement about the "death" of the Liberal Party.

Ignatieff himself even chimed in, or rather tweeted in, to the debate: "And no, I haven't read Peter Newman's book. As for 'the death of the Liberal Party,' please... It will outlive us all."

My book is principally meant as an examination of Ignatieff's prominent, decades-long role in putting a liberal, "humanitarian" face on empire and war. Nonetheless, I do have some thoughts on the reasons for the catastrophic demise of the Liberals in recent years.

Of course, as Newman duly notes, the Liberal rot set in much earlier than Ignatieff. In many ways he took over a party still critically wounded from the years of internecine battles between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

In general, however, there's been too much focus on personality over policy in analyzing Ignatieff's historic failure. We can start with a hat trick of concrete examples where political decisions -- all to varying degrees at odds with previous leader Stephane Dion -- managed to drive the party even lower in the polls.

First, he sought to win back Alberta by matching Harper in rhetorically boosting the tar sands. Ignatieff was fond of evoking the "awesome" scale of Canada's unconventional oil resource, and even belittled National Geographic after that magazine did a critical spread on the tar sands. For all this, the Liberals picked up precisely nothing in the Conservatives' Alberta heartland, and lost credibility with anyone concerned about the environment and climate change. 

Secondly, Ignatieff came down hard in support of Harper's extensions of Canada's unpopular war in Afghanistan, often going against the wishes of many in the Liberal Party. The consequence was that the Liberals were nearly shutout of Quebec, a traditional bastion of anti-war sentiment. When the Bloc vote collapsed, the Liberals' support of Harper's war helped to make the NDP the natural choice for most in Quebec.

Finally, it's worth remembering that the leadership finally fell to Ignatieff after the coalition episode at the end of 2008. He was the last Liberal MP to sign the Dion-Layton agreement, and it was no secret that he was the favourite of elements in the party who wanted nothing to do with an accord or coalition with social democrats. Especially as the NDP surged in Quebec early on in the 2011 election campaign, Ignatieff's hardline against the coalition no doubt made NDP voters out of some number of more centre-left Liberals.

Personally, the organizational future of the Liberal Party is of little concern. I'm more anxious that political lessons be learned from the #fail of Ignatieff. Voters and the businesspeople who prioritize expanding wars and expanding bitumen extraction already have the political leader they need. Politicians in opposition to Harper should either actually oppose these destructive and dangerous plans or get out of our way.

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Nothing about Ignatieff's spectacular failure in electoral politics seems to have humbled him. Witness his op-ed in the Financial Times last week advising new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on how to win the hearts and minds of the victims of looming austerity measures. The FT headline, making reference to Monti's nickname "the professor," is unintentionally hilarious: "One professor to another: listen to the people, or fail."

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