A peace plank for Ignatieff

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Michael Ignatieff has a lot going for him these days -- a post-convention glow, a pliant party a populace increasingly willing to dump the governing Conservatives. His only deficiency is the one that's always dogged him: he seems to stand for nothing.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands for many things, mostly unpleasant, like trashing struggling artists and allowing unlicensed gun owners to roam the nation. But Ignatieff has avoided positioning himself, excepting of course his earlier endorsement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- for which the freshly crowned Liberal leader has been trying to elegantly extricate his foot from his mouth for some time.

I have an idea that would help him whitewash any lingering warmonger image. It would also establish a clear difference between him and Harper, be in sync with an honoured Liberal tradition and be highly popular with Canadians.

It's a slam dunk, and I offer it freely: champion the revival of Canada's role as a leading peacekeeper in the world.

This widely admired Canadian practice -- pioneered by Liberal icon and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Lester Pearson -- had already been losing ground under the Liberals before Harper's Conservatives tossed it onto one of those fast-melting Arctic ice floes.

Canada's contribution to UN peacekeeping is now at an all-time low, ranking just below Slovakia's and just above Malawi's. Instead, we've been focused on war-making, channelling our resources into NATO's campaign in Afghanistan.

Less well known, but equally ominous on the war front, is the Harper government's plan to spend a massive $490 billion on the military and on sophisticated weaponry over the next 20 years -- even though Canada is already the sixth biggest military spender in NATO.

The plan, known as "Canada First Defence Strategy," attracted little attention when it was quietly unveiled last June. But things have changed a lot since then, with Ottawa now facing enormous deficits, inevitably leading to a new era of government spending cuts.

Why has one sector -- the war sector -- been given a commitment of 20 years of spending increases, while so many other vital sectors will be facing cuts, Ignatieff could ask daily in the Commons.

And he'd have Canadians onside. A poll commissioned by the finance department before last year's budget showed that Canadians ranked increased military spending as their very last spending priority among 18 possible options. (This explains why Harper chose to announce his "Canada First Defence Strategy" plan on a government website during the slow-news time slot of 4 a.m.)

The plan shows Ottawa is gearing up for more counter-insurgency warfare, not peacekeeping, says Rideau Institute president Steven Staples. "The military has driven a stake through the heart of our peacekeeping role."

Notably, the plan pledges "long-term stable funding" so that Canadian industry will be "better positioned to compete for defence contracts at home and abroad."

So forget the auto sector, alternative fuels or green technologies. The bulk of our taxpayer dollars for industrial development in the next two decades will be going to build up Canada's "defence" sector.

Ignatieff could counter this push toward developing a mini military-industrial-complex in Canada by instead championing a burgeoning citizen-based initiative pressing Ottawa to establish a federal Department of Peace.

A decision by Ignatieff to challenge the Conservative drift toward militarism would do the country -- and the world -- a service, while also making him seem less of an empty vessel.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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