The front-runners: All could be Prime Minister, given time
What do Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, and Gerard Kennedy have in common? All of them would have a very tough time winning the next federal election, though I would do my very best to help any one of them try!
Bob Rae, a brilliant left wing thinker and experienced politician could probably keep the Harper government to a minority. His weakness in urban Ontario ridings where people make fun of Rae Days while ignoring the blood-letting that successor Mike Harris implemented in their stead will hurt the Liberal party where it is strongest. But after serving time as the leader of the opposition, I believe it would be possible for him to bring the Liberal party back to power, as his record as a federal opposition leader overwrites that part of people's memories of his time as premier. How long it would take, I do not know. That he can win eventually is why Bob Rae remains my second choice.
The Liberal party has retained power over the bulk of the last century by capturing the centrist vote in the centre of the country. The highly urbanised provinces of Quebec and Ontario are the backbone of Liberal support, with a varying degree of support in the rest of the country. Rae might gain on the Bloc in Quebec and increase the current support in the rest of the country, but his Ontario weakness was shown in the delegate selection this past weekend. His left wing background makes him a concern to the volatile right wing of the party and is a short term liability, but a long term asset.
Michael Ignatieff, a brilliant intellectual with little political experience and no map of the minefield that is the Canadian political landscape has been hailed by many in the party as the white knight. He has tried to portray himself as a Pierre Trudeau, the frontrunner who will unite the party and defeat the naysayers, to lead us to 16 years of rather interesting government. Trudeau, as leader, welcomed his opponents into his cabinet and into his circle as team members, and not as rivals. It was a true demonstration of his leadership. I have no doubt that Ignatieff would handle his opponents in the same manner were he to win the leadership. Where I have doubt is in his ability to win an election following a leadership win.
Michael Ignatieff is, in spite of his claims to the contrary, from the right side of the party. The last right wing leader acclaimed by the membership as the holy grail of Liberal leadership nearly destroyed the party and allowed a Conservative government that no longer even pretended to be progressive to take power, putting us in the very position we are in today.
We are facing the prospect of a recession in the near future, as the North American housing market begins to collapse, accelerated by poor fiscal decisions by the Republican government in the United States and the rapid expunging of Canada's federal monies by our Conservative government in Canada. When recessions hit, the population moves to the left. Instead of having money and refusing to hand it over to the government, the population goes through a seismic shift, demanding that the government help the hobbled economy by injecting money into it. Indeed it should be the role of the government to put money away through the good times and spend it on things like rebuilding our national infrastructure in the bad times, to soften both the ups and the downs of the economic cycle, but the government we have today is eliminating the surplus we had put aside as a buffer, with huge tax cuts and massive military expenditures.
When the economy enters its period of recession, issues such as the war in Afghanistan become secondary to the domestic concerns of Canadians. This is not why Ignatieff risks losing an election. His views on foreign policy are interesting, if slightly untraditional to the Liberal party, but not wholly relevant to the upcoming political discourse in Canada. The main issue will be the economy. As things stand currently, a budget deficit by whatever party is in government is nearly inevitable only a couple of years down the road. Why the population will not accept their government going into deficit while they themselves dive into debts larger than their own 'gross family product', for lack of a better term, is a mystery to address on another day.
During recessions, populations tend to trade in their governments. This could become a problem in the province of Quebec, which currently has an unpopular, but federalist, leader. The Quebec Liberals may be re-elected before the economic downturn is felt, but if the recession hits in the next year as I believe it will, the people of Quebec will almost certainly elect André Boisclair and his separatist Parti Québecois.
Michael Ignatieff has already promised to pour salt into the wound of the Canadian constitution, never ratified by Quebec's National Assembly. Coupled with a weak economy and a separatist government, this would provide just the boost the PQ would need to win a referendum. It is a scenario that people who do not know Quebec fail to realise, though the soft nationalist vote in Quebec is more than happy to bring it on, as demonstrated by Michael Ignatieff's results in the province.
However, to get to that point, he would have to win an election and become the Prime Minister. I do not believe he can pull it off in the upcoming federal election. Some of his statements are already being played against him in the House of Commons, and his commitment to Canada is perceived by some as being a bit shaky. While he was in Canada in 1968 for the leadership convention that brought in Pierre Trudeau, he has been politically absent virtually the entire time since. Until recently, he would not even commit to running for parliament if not elected leader, though in a reversal reminiscent of Paul Martin, he now states unequivocally that he will of course stay on and run in the next election.
While I believe that Bob Rae could, I do not know if Michael Ignatieff would be able to keep Stephen Harper's Conservatives to a minority. In the short term, his right wing policies on foreign relations, including the general belief, whether true or not, that he would have sent Canadian soldiers to Iraq, prevent him from differentiating himself from the Conservative party. The dedicated right wing voters in Canada already have a right wing party to vote for in the Conservative party. I would be hard pressed to believe that they would vote for a conservative Liberal party, given that choice.
Ignatieff would also risk opening up the left flank of the party wider than it is now. I do not expect to see a Jack Layton minority government, but one cannot underestimate the size of an NDP caucus in a House with two right wing parties and only one left wing party in a time when the country is about to shift to the left. Jack Layton has been widely chastised for bringing down the Martin government prematurely, but his strategy may have been better thought out and longer term than he has been given credit for.
Michael Ignatieff sees himself as a left wing candidate. In the US political spectrum, I agree, but there is a red-shift of difference between the US and Canadian left. Here, he is distinctly to the right of centre.
The Liberal Party has long straddled the centre line, shifting to the left and to the right as the nation does. While the tide has been flowing to the right for a long time, it is now shifting back to the centre, and now would be a bad time for us to drop anchor.
Bob Rae is wrong about this not being a race of ideas, but he is right when he invokes winability. The ideas that matter are the short term, practical ones which will even out the Canadian economic cycle and reduce the shocks to our system, the ones that are relevant to the lives of Canadians.
Canadians want to live in a united, prosperous country without the uncertainty of another round of constitutional wrangling or the threat of a referendum on succession in Quebec, or the international animosity and tragedy created by fighting foreign wars for foreign powers. We, as a country, want a leader who has proven himself to be successful in handling the relevant issues of the day, and who has shown an unquestioning commitment to our country. The Liberal party's front-runner offers us neither of these features, and the man in second place has only the latter to show for his five year term as a majority premier.
There are two other possibilities in the race for the leadership of the Liberal party. Whether either of them can win the next election is unclear, but they at least offer both features mentioned above. Gerard Kennedy understands the problems facing our country in a prolonged war in Afghanistan and sits decidedly to the left of centre on the political spectrum, but faces his Achilles heel in that, while Michael Ignatieff has captured the soft nationalist support of the party in Quebec, and Stéphane Dion has captured the federalist vote in Quebec, he has captured no measurable support in that province.
Quebec is the critical growth area for the Liberal party and it would be unwise for us to head into the election with a leader who is completely unknown in the province. Kennedy might be able to win a subsequent election, after time spent leading the opposition, but he would need to grow into the role over a longer period of time and could not defeat the Conservative party in an election held in under a year. While he could almost certainly keep the Conservative party to a minority, we need to aim higher.
This leaves only one person in the top tier who stands any reasonable chance of winning a federal election this time, without waiting. Though I admit, from a cynical perspective, that the Liberal party would benefit in the long term from a Conservative government taking us into the recession,
Canada needs a Liberal government going into this recession to manage the country carefully and soften the blow it will inevitably deliver. The Conservative party's wreckless slashing of social programs, large tax cuts, increased capital spending, and premature debt repayment will leave them no alternative but to return to deficit when the economy cools off.
Stéphane Dion may have slightly weaker party support than any of the other candidates mentioned, but has more even support across the country than the other candidates. He is also the strong second choice for supporters of nearly all the other candidates. He is firmly in the centre of the political spectrum, and has a long track record in federal politics and is a dedicated, passionate, and uncompromising Canadian. His delegate support in Quebec is comparable to Michael Ignatieff's national support, dispelling the myth that Quebec will not vote for him, and proving that he can bring growth to the Liberal party in a province that needs it. Dion is the uniting candidate, lacking the perceived Chrétien ties of the Bob Rae campaign or the perceived Martin ties of the Ignatieff campaign. He is acceptable to both sides of a historically split party and stands the best chance of any of the candidates at bringing the party together following the leadership.
He understands that domestic issues, especially the increasing effects of our environmental irresponsibility, are the primary concern of Canadians, and he will talk policy, not politics, at every possible opportunity. He entered the race without being taken seriously, and has shown that he is not only serious, but has the potential to surprise the country as much as he has surprised the party, and win an election.
I have confidence that Stéphane Dion's understanding of the issues facing our country will cause him to invest in the major infrastructure investment of our time. A massive government initiative to spend on green energy will not only help Canada pull through a recession relatively unscathed, but bring us out the other side as a world leader in environmental issues. Dion's vision for the future of Canada is larger than the Liberal party, it is to the benefit of the country as a whole.
The economy will be our biggest near term concern, but the climate altering effects of global warming are our most important long term concern. The people of Canada are waking up to this reality. The solutions for our carbon dioxide filled atmosphere are just a properly led recession away.
All these candidates can, as leaders, win federal elections, eventually. Together, the four of them would make an excellent senior cabinet team in a Liberal government. All of them are true Liberals within the wide scope of the party, but the real question we must answer is how long are we willing to wait? How deep will the Canadian deficit have to get before we are brought in to patch it up? Many of the ministers in the current government have a good deal of practice at hiding fiscal mismanagement. Our federal Minister of Finance managed to hide a five billion dollar annual deficit from the people of Ontario when he was the provincial minister of the same portfolio in Ontario. We, as a country, cannot afford a leader who will require years to learn how to do his job. We need someone who is a leader here and now, who has the appropriate experience to defeat the Conservative government and the vision to keep Canada running smoothly in both the short term and the long term. I put it to you that this leader is Stéphane Dion.
Posted at 17:15 on October 06, 2006
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