Michael Ignatieff. He's been the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada for a year and a couple of weeks as tonight ushers in 2010 and what a year it has been for the Liberal Party.
Look at it this way. When the Liberal party faithful anointed Mr. Ignatieff at the Vancouver convention in May, did any of them imagine the party and its leader would be where they stand today? Leaving aside the fact that there was no one else running, did the 97% who voted for the current leader really anticipate this awful mess?
As far as I can recall, Mr. Ignatieff held himself out as ready to lead the Liberal Party when he sought the leadership. I found it curious when, during his year-ender interviews in Toronto, he skirted around the abject shambles he's made by saying he's still 'learning the ropes.' Correct me if I'm wrong but did this fellow ever tell anyone he was running for "apprentice leader" of the LPC?
Why has Mr. Ignatieff fared so poorly? I suspect a main reason is that, like his followers, he somehow thought himself qualified for the job based on his record outside of politics. After all, he's a Harvard PhD with an first-rate academic history. That's all true and it is impressive but, then again, I've had some truly brilliant professors I wouldn't trust to walk my dog. The hallowed halls of Academia are full of brilliant people utterly ill-suited to the world outside where survival sometimes means having to mix it up.
I think Mr. Ignatieff's fatal flaw is that, like his predecessor and fellow academic, he suffers a serious deficiency in political instinct. He doesn't get it. His opponent isn't nearly as well educated as Mr. Ignatieff. Mr. Harper isn't remotely as accomplished, nor as well travelled, nor as highly regarded. But, and here's the truly big BUT, Mr. Harper has keenly honed political instincts. He's quick to take the measure of his opponents, to understand their strengths and their weaknesses. Then, carefully biding his time until the moment is right, Mr. Harper exploits opportunities to match his strength against his opponents' vulnerabilities.
Look at the Harper/Dion election. Battered by scandals, Harper waited until the public memory faded over a long, dull summer. The Dion Libs believed the end of summer would bring the return of Parliament and prepared to pick up where they left off. Mr. Harper, after all, had legislated fixed election dates. The Liberals were dozing off. But then, like a Panzer army bursting through the Ardennes, Harper struck, calling a snap election. Why? No reason. Over what? Nothing really. It wasn't so much an election as a blitzkrieg campaign to overwhelm the Liberal leader, to make the public fearful of his horribly bungled "Green Shift" policy. Harper didn't even introduce any Conservative policy at all until the very last week of the campaign - and he didn't have to - and he knew it. Dion and the Liberals went down in flames.
Anyone who ever underestimated Harper's political instincts after Dion's trashing had no business in opposition politics.
Harper was genuinely cautious about Mr. Ignatieff at the start, even to the point of acting collegial at times. That didn't last long. At first, Harper was worried about his government falling to a coalition. He was so worried about it he furiously lied to a gullible/ignorant Canadian public about plots to illegally topple a democratically-elected government. It worked. The opposition was unable to fight back with the truth. It couldn't even beat Harper over the head with his own lies. Ignatieff got cold feet. Harper called on the Governor-General and got her to prorogue Parliament (which as Madam Jean has recently shown is about as tough as a first-grader getting permission to go down the hall to the bathroom because he has to pee).
Now Mr. Ignatieff, if he had a shred of the political acumen he purported to have in seeking the Liberal leadership, ought to have known the recess marked the commencement of a war and a very limited window to prepare for it. The economy was faltering, Canada was dreading a meltdown and Parliament was locked out. It would return only when the Harper Cons were ready to unveil their idea of a "stimulus" budget. This practically was an engraved invitation for the Libs to roll up their sleeves, toil through the night and be prepared, on the return of Parliament, with an alternative stimulus budget of their own to lay before the Canadian public.
What happened? Nothing. The Liberal leader took the opportunity to focus, not on Canada, but on himself. He used the extended, paid leave to finish writing a book about his mother's family. WTF? When Parliament returned, Mr. Ignatieff arrived rested and empty-handed. He made the Liberal Party of Canada a joke.
Having chosen to return to Parliament utterly unprepared, Ignatieff had little choice but to fall into line and sign on to Harper's "Pinata Budget" while mumbling sophomoric threats about putting the Harper government "on probation." Canadians watched - and giggled - and came to their own conclusions about Mr. Ignatieff.
Then followed 50-some votes in which the Libs propped up the Cons even as they uttered threats to bring down the government. By summer the IgLibs finally mustered the guts to seriously threaten Harper only to be undercut by the NDP until they finally discovered what they should have known - that the Canadian public would kick the Libs to the curb if they forced another election. Yet another black eye for the Liberal Party.
Canada's government is terrible. It's almost as bad as Canada's Official Opposition. Being in opposition is supposed to be much easier than being in government. It's where you have the freedom to begin showing the electorate that you're actually ready to govern. The Ignatieff Liberals, so sadly, haven't shown the public they're ready to be Official Opposition never mind an actual government.
Now Parliament is again prorogued with the Liberal opposition left to whimper and whine. Some suspect Harper will strike again when Parliament returns in March, calling yet another snap election (after he has further stacked the Senate). But wait a second. The Liberals are already booked for March, aren't they? Isn't that when Mr. Ignatieff has scheduled his "Thinkers' Conference" to toss around Liberal policy ideas? Well maybe they'll "think" of something but I'm not betting on it.
We know that Harper can't win a majority on his own and his record doesn't warrant that outcome in any case. However he can and may just win that cherished majority in the next election and, if he does, he'll be deeply indebted to the Liberal leadership current and past. They haven't figured out that, if you want to beat Stephen Harper, you have to think like Stephen Harper.
Maybe, just maybe, if the Canadian voting public gets another chance to press the Liberal's "reset" button, this time they'll listen.
And with that, I take my leave - for the next month or two or three. Things change so quickly these days. Much can happen in barely a season. I will keep my fingers crossed for the Liberal Party and will continue to hope that it will find its way back out of the desert. Bonne Courage!