Rather than re-invent himself, Ignatieff should be the anti-politician

Posted on July 17, 2010 in Governance Debates

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owensoundsuntimes.com – Opinion/Guest Columnists
July 16, 2010.   Posted By MICHAEL WARRENLast year at this time Stephen Harper was struggling and Michael Ignatieff seemed to be on the ascension. Remember?

I boasted to a friend from the West that surely glory days were ahead for the Liberals. He responded by saying he thought Ignatieff was a “post turtle.”

Not familiar with the term I asked him what a “post turtle” was. He replied, “When you are driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that’s a “post turtle.”

My friend saw my puzzled look so he explain. “You know: He didn’t get up there by himself, he doesn’t belong up there, and he doesn’t know what to do while he is up there . . . and you just wonder what dumb ass put him up there to begin with.”
Well, I am one of the dumb asses that helped put Ignatieff up there.

It seems prudent now, as matters stand, to explain myself and to do what so many others are doing — offer Michael Ignatieff some public advice.

What first attracted me to him during the 2006 leadership race was his tendency to put ideas ahead of partisan politics. Somewhat like Trudeau, he was politically irreverent. An anti-politician.

He stood for a strengthened and sustainable economy, an equal “spine of citizenship” for all, unity as a people and a strong place in the world for Canada.

He was not afraid of bold solutions. Ignatieff was the only candidate to advocate an income-neutral carbon tax as the most effective way of reducing our dependency on carbon-based energy.

Several key things have happened since to blur Ignatieff’s leadership agenda. The recession completely changed the fiscal landscape.
It prompted Harper to introduce a liberal budget, which coopted many of Ignatieff’s economic recovery ideas.

But the greatest drag on his popularity is not his core ideas. It is his inability to connect with Canadians.

Ignatieff can be charming, articulate, curious and self-effacing. But it’s often on an intellectual level. When he tries to reach Canadians on a visceral level — to win their hearts and minds — he has trouble engaging and exciting his audience. He can come across as patrician and distant.

The political pygmies who surround him seem intent on trying to make him into something he is not — a traditional politician.

Ditch any potentially unpopular ideas. Withhold the inconvenient truth about a whole range of issues.

Play it safe. Hope that the Harper government defeats itself.

There is another strategy, one that aligns more closely with Ignatieff’s character.

Let him become the anti-politician that he really is. He doesn’t much like, and isn’t very good at, federal politics the way it’s currently played. So change the game.

Being an anti-politician would mean telling the truth and treating the electorate like mature, responsible grown-ups. I know, this is a risky idea, but Ignatieff has little to lose.

He would tell Canadians that we need to do more than delay the corporate tax cut if we hope to manage down our massive federal deficit, while maintaining our social safety nets. Further taxes are inevitable.

Then there is the truth about the environment. The conservatives are not even meeting their modest goal of reducing our 2006 emissions levels by 20% by 2020. And, the Liberals’ cap and trade policy won’t be enough to change our pollution behaviour.

Ignatieff, the anti-politician, would renew the fight for a revenue neutral environmental refund — knowing that it is needed for Canada to reach minimal international standards. Tax us on what we burn, not on what we earn.

He would take the risk of sounding the alarm on Canada’s unsustainable health-care system.

He would champion the tough federal/provincial reforms necessary to deliver greater value for our health dollars.

There are many other truths and consequences that conventional politicians avoid sharing with us. They think, “we can’t handle the truth!”

Therein lies a “Hail Mary” opportunity for Ignatieff. Instead of trying to re-invent himself, maybe he ought to do what suits his temperament: Trust in the common sense of Canadians and their willingness to make sacrifices for their country.

A little more passion wouldn’t hurt either.

Michael Warren is CEO of The Warren Group. He is a former Ontario deputy minister, chief general manager of the TTC, and CEO of Canada Post Corporation.

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