The instinct for power

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When the Toronto trio (Ian Davey, Alf Apps, Dan Brock) went off to Harvard to talk Michael Ignatieff into returning to Canada to enter politics, they were looking for a Pierre Trudeau, someone who could inspire Canadians. Instead it looks more like they found a Robert Stanfield, the Trudeau-era Conservative opposition leader, who never did became prime minister. Like Ignatieff he turned down his early chance at taking power.

Back in 1968, with the Liberal leadership hopefuls running to replace Prime Minister Lester Pearson off and campaigning around the country, the government lost a vote in the House of Commons. The vote was on the budget, a money bill, therefore a matter of confidence, according to parliamentary tradition. Stanfield could have forced the Liberal government to resign immediately. The fresh new Conservative leader would have faced -- not a new Liberal leader (eventually Trudeau) -- but Pearson ready to retire, and playing out his string.

Instead, with the backing of powerful insiders, including the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the Conservative leader was persuaded by Pearson that to unseat the government at a time of fragility in international financial markets, would be to risk a run on the Canadian dollar, and upset the nations finances. Perhaps. For sure, the Liberals had no interest in an election, they were likely to lose.

Stanfield agreed to ignore the budget vote result, and accept in its place, a vote on a motion expressly worded as a confidence vote (a practice that is in use in our minority parliament). A vote was taken, and the minority Liberal government survived.

Trudeau became Liberal leader, and beat Stanfield in the subsequent general election in June. Stanfield lost again, narrowly, in 1972, and yet again in 1974. Clark succeeded Stanfield and proceeded to win a minority in 1979; though he promptly lost it, over a budget vote, which he declared to be a matter of confidence, thinking it was 1957, and that he was Diefenbaker, about to turn a minority government into a thundering majority.

Despite his decision to resign the Liberal leadership following his defeat by Clark, the country turned again to Trudeau when he agreed to lead his party into the hasty follow-up election of 1980. With the PQ taking power again in Quebec, and reading itself for a referendum on sovereignty, Canadians decided it was no time to allow a novice like Clark to hold office.
The instinct for power defines political leadership. Power has to be won, held, used and won again. Trudeau had the instinct for power, as did Chrétien. Stanfield did not, and Clark failed to use it when he won it.

Ten months ago, following the ignominious Conservative budget update, and the cowardly decision by Stephen Harper to prorogue parliament, Ignatieff could have voted out the Conservative government, and taken power in a coalition with the New Democrats, supported by the Bloc. But, powerful insiders wanted nothing to do with the New Democrats, and preferred to let the Conservatives wear the recession, believing the Liberals could bounce back later and take power alone. Ignatieff did not have the instinct for power. He did not see that when he held back, he allowed Harper to live on, learn from his mistakes, and move ahead.

Today, it is Harper that has bounced back and the Liberals are resigning themselves to time in the wilderness. Instead of Harper being forced out of the leadership of his party for his unforgivable errors in playing politics with the recession, Liberals are casting about thinking of who should be the next leader.

The Toronto trio have moved on to be replaced by new handlers, veterans from the past, the Chrétien era, when there were two conservative parties, not one. Ignatieff faces a leader who has shown he has the instinct for power, and an appetite for governing.

The electorate is not pro-Harper, but unless Ignatieff finds a way to sink the prime minister in the mind of the public, the political career of the Liberal leader looks to be short.

Duncan Cameron writes from France.

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