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Michael Ignatieff is Mackenzie King

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William Lyon Mackenzie King, the politician who served as prime minister for longer than any other mortal, over 21 years, has returned to offer his services to Canadians once again, this time in the guise of Michael Ignatieff. Perhaps the word "mortal" is ill chosen. WLMK believed in reincarnation and never did anything without consulting a sooth-sayer. He would only enter or leave the House of Commons when the hands of the clock were in a special alignment to one another. His diaries are full of conversations he had with the dead, whether his mother, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or Franklin Roosevelt.

Clever of Mackenzie King to return as Michael Ignatieff, a man who spent most of his working life outside Canada. (For much of the First World War, King was in the U.S., organizing company unions in Colorado for the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller.) Ignatieff has encouraged Canadians to think of him as an amalgam of Wilfrid Laurier, Pierre Trudeau and Barack Obama. King wanted to be thought of as combining the best of Laurier, which caused Laurier's widow to come close to swooning in horror at the Liberal convention of 1919, and his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, first mayor of Toronto and the leader of an armed rebellion against the British crown.

King was deeply averse to change, though he often tried to appear sympathetic to those who fought for reform. Someday perhaps a few of the less radical ideas of the CCF could be implemented, he mused, but only in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, it was his self-appointed task, to remain at the helm holding together the contradictory elements of Canadian society, labour and capital, French and English, East and West.

A master of the fine art of letting the Conservatives destroy themselves, King staunchly avoided presenting anything new to Canadians especially during federal election campaigns. He was lucky in his opponents, sharp edged Tories such as Arthur Meighen and R.B. Bennett who were loathed by most Canadians. King's job was to show up at the helm of a united party and to encourage Canadians to "throw the bums out" and later to keep them out. When he came back to power in 1935, he let the Depression and the reputation of "Iron Heel" Bennett do the job for him. Six years of economic misery had taught him nothing.

In the coming weeks, we will watch Michael Ignatieff present himself as a prime minister in waiting. He will offer reassuring sentiments to convince Canadians that he is civilized and vaguely progressive. There will be no new ideas, no green-shift, no reappraisal of the mission in Afghanistan, no plan to rebuild the Canadian economy and create jobs for Canadians. Ignatieff's campaign will be all about presenting contrasts with the Iron-Heel Conservative of our time, Stephen Harper. Ignatieff will be a little friendlier to labour, a little more caring about pre-schoolers, a little nicer to Quebec, and a little more concerned about the environment than Harper. Meanwhile, he will tell business audiences that he will return the nation as swiftly as possible to fiscal probity, while keeping taxes low and spending tightly under control.

It remains to be seen how Canadians will respond to the Second Coming.

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