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"Front runner" Ignatieff faces uphill battle

[PoliticsWatch posted 6:05 p.m. June 16, 2006]

Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff. 

OTTAWA  — On the surface, Michael Ignatieff would appear to have just about all you need to run a successful leadership campaign. 
He's intelligent, an incredible communicator, speaks numerous languages, has broad caucus support and has one of the best organizations.  

Yet despite being considered one of the front runners in the Liberals' 11-person leadership race, Ignatieff faces an uphill battle with the party's rank and file that was quite evident at last week's leadership forum in Winnipeg. 

(The Liberals are opting to call their leadership debates a "forum" because 11 people is more like a policy spelling bee than a debate.)

Watching last weekend's debate in Winnipeg, it wouldn't be difficult to come to the same conclusion that Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson arrived at when he wrote this week: "Last Saturday's tortuous Liberal leadership debate was a pure air-war event, and it highlighted two truths: Michael Ignatieff is the one to beat, and the way to beat him is by tarring him as an American conservative who would hijack the Liberal Party."  

While last weekend's debate has raised questions about Ignatieff in the media, overlooked is just where are the Liberal party's rank and file. 

While members of the audience will not all be delegates at December's leadership convention in Montreal, most of them are party members and will play a role in the selection of delegates. 

It should be noted that Winnipeg, Manitoba, is located near the geographic centre of Canada and the city elected Tory, Liberal and NDP MPs to the House in the January election. 

If you judge the audience by their applause, it would not be hard to conclude that Ignatieff's support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now his recent vote in favour of extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan will not sit too well with the party's rank and file. 

Because saying anything to distance yourself from our allies to the south seems to go down really well with Liberals. 

And this is in Manitoba, far from the "The Liberal Party of Toronto's" new power base in the GTA. 

Even a long-shot candidate like Liberal MP Hedy Fry knows the magic formula for eliciting applause from a room full of Liberals when she recalled a comment former prime minister Jean Chretien made saying that Canada should be the United States' friend, but not their lovers. 

It was the only time during the debate that Fry received spontaneous applause. 

Some Liberals will argue that the party is not anti-American but has serious issues with the Bush administration. 

This was best illustrated when former Ontario premier Bob Rae said in his opening statement that Canada should not be "a branch plant for the Republican party." Rae's statement, of course, drew applause.

But how would you explain what happened to Liberal MP Scott Brison?

During the debate segment on Afghanistan, Brison -- who along with Ignatieff are the the only two candidates to back the extension of the mission in the House -- defended why he supported the mission when other Liberals said they were voting against for procedural reasons. 

Brison argued that if MPs had defeated the motion, the headline in the next day's New York Times would have reported that Parliament was withdrawing its support for the mission. 

That provided an opening for low-profile candidate Martha Hall Findlay to land the zinger of the entire two-hour debate.  

"We do not establish foreign policy in this country, with all due respect, because we're afraid of what the headlines in the New York Times might be," she said, sending the audience into a Jerry Springer like frenzy. 

The irony of it is is that had Hall Findlay made that comment at a Republican convention in Texas should would have received just as positive response. 

Those who argue the Liberals are fine with Americans, it's just Republicans, would have a hard time explaining why a crowd of Liberals would cheer Hall Findlay's dig at a publication that the U.S. conservative Media Research Centre has deemed worthy enough to create a separate Web site dedicated to "documenting and exposing the liberal political agenda of . . ." 

Brison had an option, sir. 

He could have chosen one of many thousands of publications internationally to make his point, but he had the misfortune of picking one that was American. 

In this Liberal universe, Brison can recover from his e-mails to income trust investors, but it may be impossible for him to recover in the eyes of Liberals for the mortal sin of mentioning an American newspaper in the debate.

This week, Liberals met at a special conference in Mont Tremblant to discuss where they go from here. 

At that forum Environics president Michael Adams made a presentation on the mood of the country that described Canadians as "wary of Americans." 

That perhaps would be a good way to describe the Liberals. 

And because of that, it spells big problems for Ignatieff, who has spent most of the last two decades living in America. 
During the Afghanistan part of the debate, Ignatieff -- who also is an international conflict scholar -- delivered some pretty compelling reasons for supporting extending the mission in a recent vote. 

Ignatieff said he could not in good conscience vote against the mission just hours after Capt. Nichola Goddard -- who was stationed not far from Winnipeg -- was killed in combat. 

He noted the reality that it is near impossible to achieve the NDP's utopian dream to focus on delivering  humanitarian aid and work on the reconstruction of the country when the Taliban is blowing things up and beheading people all around.  

Ignatieff also said he was in favour of giving our soldiers more resources for equipment to properly participate in missions like Afghanistan. 

"Canada is a serious country," Ignatieff added. " If you ask us to do something hard and difficult, we will do it. We should stay there until we get the job done and return with honour.”

The next speaker was Rae, who rose and said he had to profoundly disagree with what the conflict scholar just said. Rae's comments were greeted by a loud round of cheers and applause before he could explain that he only profoundly disagreed with Ignatieff's view that if you don't support Harper's extension you don't support the troops.

Based on the applause he received throughout the debate, Rae seems to understand the language of today's Liberals. He appears equally or more adept with that language than any of the other candidates, many of whom have spent  decades in Liberal politics.

And that language -- at least on Afghanistan -- appears to be similar to that of NDP Leader Jack Layton, who now calls Afghanistan the wrong mission. 

Here's what Layton said during the Afghanistan debate in the House.  

"New Democrats stand in opposition to the government's plans to lock our country into a long term, war-fighting role in Afghanistan, a role that does not properly reflect the principles and ideals of the people of Canada," he said.

"For nearly five decades, Canada has pursued peace in nations around the world and brought hope to lives torn apart by war. From the Suez Canal to Cyprus, from the Sinai to the former Yugoslavia, Canada has built a reputation as a respected peacekeeping nation. Canada is not a super power . . .."

Now here's what Rae said on Saturday. 

“The risk that we run by turning ourselves into a combat force that's engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-guerilla forces is that we will in fact lose our way as peacekeepers and as people who believe in the maintenance of peace," said Rae.

“And that it seems to me is a very basic question for Canadians and very important for Liberals as we head into the next election: Are we prepared to craft an independent foreign policy in which we're proud of our own voice as Canadians?”

While Rae's views may not be the views of all Liberals, they are much closer to Layton's than Ignatieff's. And they appear a lot more popular with Liberals than those of Ignatieff's.

And for Mr. Ignatieff that is why for a front runner he has an uphill battle facing him. 

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