The recent Canadian election has been the topic of much foreign news coverage, with pundits trying to explain why liberal-minded Canada has given a majority to the most right leaning party in its history, what exactly the New Democratic Party is, and why on earth Canada turned its back so firmly on its ‘traditional ruling party’, headed by a man described in the Guardian as “known to the British as a fine writer, historian and BBC talking head, who had returned to Canada to lead the Liberals”. Embassy Magazine wrote an astoundingly condescending piece about Canada’s lack of interest in foreign policy which contained the following:
Given Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s background, many had expected him to campaign on foreign policy. And at the start of the campaign he did try to frame the election around the question of ethics, especially the tenor of Conservative foreign policy. … But … Mr. Ignatieff failed to inspire with this foreign policy-tinged message. In fact, the more he talked about it, the less traction he seemed to be getting with centrist or progressive voters. … At one point, the Liberal leader’s frustration became quite evident, with Mr. Ignatieff wondering why Canadians were not latching onto the many controversies that had dogged the Conservatives before the election. Mr. Ignatieff’s plea that Canada should regain its international standing was a version of this idea that the country should be undergoing some soul-searching prior to voting. But with his historic low, it appears Canadians weren’t up for that sort of deep think.
So according to this report (and many others, since Ignatieff started campaigning) a public that did not vote for Michael Ignatieff is anti-intellectual, anti-US, and even a nation full of uncaring or stupid people. While it would be excessive to imply that all of the Liberal Party’s current woes can be set at the feet of Michael Ignatieff, or that Canadians feel a great deal of interest in foreign policy, the election result does not prove the writer’s point but rather the opposite.
It is an uncontested fact that public support for the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff plummeted, even compared to the disastrous prior leadership of Stéphane Dion. Contrary to much foreign opinion, the Liberal and Conservative parties of Canada are both strong corporatist parties, neither is socialist leaning like the NDP. And labour issues were not a big topic during the election and could not be said to have been a strong influence in turning Liberal voters to NDP. There are, historically, two things that matter very much to Canadian Liberals: a liberal philosophy towards laws and citizen rights, including a dislike of military involvement outside of strict peacekeeping missions and a strong support of human rights, and Canadian federalist sovereignty.
Michael Ignatieff was hilariously brought in by the Liberal Party of Canada, to be the ‘next Pierre Trudeau’, referring to a strong federalist former prime minister who suffered his biggest backlash from his own Liberal party when he invoked the War Measures Act, which allowed the police to arrest and detain without trial, during the October Crisis of 1970. He also received some of his biggest support for standing up to the US. Michael Ignatieff, has advocated torture (which he does not call torture, but others do, more anon), ‘pre-emptive wars’, and indefinite detention without trial. He was a supporter of the Iraq war for far too long. He has openly preached the manifest destiny of the United States for years and self identified as nothing but an American, also for many years. In 2003 he wrote Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, which argued that the US had a responsibility to create a “humanitarian empire” through nation-building and, if necessary, military force, and when he talks of Canada’s “leadership in the world” it is always in reference to an expanded military.
He campaigned on an insult to the Canadian system of multi-party governance, decreeingfrom day one that Canadians had but two choices. I am saying as clearly as I can to the Canadian people, looking them straight in the eye”—here he focused his gaze into the TV camera directly in front of him, so it would seem to a television viewer that Ignatieff really was looking him in the eye—“if you want to replace the Harper government, you’ve got to vote Liberal.” Which, if believed, left the Canadian people with two options for prime minister, both strongly disapproving of everything Canada is.
Ignatieff in the past
Here are a few things from Michael Ignatieff’s background that Canadians may have been subjecting to that “deep think” they supposedly were not having about foreign policy. His writings and interviews are many and diverse, but the parts that mattered the most to Canadians were neatly summed up in a New Humanist article by Laurie Taylor at the point where he resigned from the advisory board of the Index on Censorship and requested that all syndication of an article referencing him be withheld. Everything in this article is easily verifiable from Ignatieff’s own writings, but whenever the Conservative party used these facts in their ads, the Canadian people were told that the Conservatives were bad people and were trying to destroy Ignatieff’s reputation. Maclean’s magazine quotes a Conservative staff member as saying, “Michael Ignatieff, in our narrative, is a political opportunist who is calculating, who will do and say anything to get elected.” In Maclean’s narrative, and in that of much of the Canadian media, this constitutes a political attack on Ignatieff. Of course it is. But that does not make the facts any less true or mean that Canadians should not be listening to them. It means Canadians should have been asking why they had to hear this material primarily from Conservative attack ads instead of their own media.
So what are these facts? Given the volume of his writing, it is perhaps most helpful to look at comments from his peers.
Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE, wrote in the February 2005 edition of the Index on Censorship that Ignatieff was “probably the most important figure to fall into this category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human rights abuses.” for his support of the Iraq invasion and more. “The trick is to take the ‘human’ out of ‘human rights’. This is done by stressing the unprecedented nature of the threat that is currently posed by Islamic terrorism, by insisting that it is ‘a kind of violence that not only kills but would destroy our human rights culture as well if it had a chance’. In these extraordinary circumstances, ‘who can blame even the human rights advocate for taking his or her eye off each individual’s puny plight, for allowing just a little brutality, a beating-up perhaps, or a touch of sensory deprivation?’. But once intellectuals do open this door then scores of Rumsfeldians pour past shouting ‘me too’ and (to the intellectual’s plaintive cries of protest) ‘what do you know about national security – go back to your class work and the New York Review of Books’.” … Ignatieff is the best exemplar of this type of intellectual because of his apparently total commitment to the idea that we are now faced with ‘evil’ people and that unless we fight evil with evil we will succumb. It is precisely because we are democratic and special that, in Ignatieff’s words “necessity may require us to take actions in defence of democracy which will stray from democracy’s own foundational commitments to dignity.” … If Abu Ghraib was wrong then that wrongness consisted not in stepping across the line into evil behaviour but rather allowing a ‘necessary evil’ (as framed by the squeamish intellectuals) to stray into ‘unnecessary evil’ (as practised by the not-so-squeamish Rumsfeldians).”
Michael Neumann, Professor of Philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, called Ignatieff’s Empire Lite (2003) “a web of foolishness, error and confusion” and described Ignatieff’s argument as: “The US should, having first consulted its own interest, occupy ‘failed states’ and suppress disorder. Then, over what Ignatieff repeatedly emphasises is a long period of time, Americans are to teach these little folks abut judicial procedure, democracy and human rights. Then Americans will help their apt pupils to create sustainably democratic institutions.”
Mariano Aguirre, in a 2005 article called ‘Exporting Democracy, Revising Torture: The Complex Missions of Michael Ignatieff’ calls Ignatieff’s arguments ‘and yet and yet’. “Ignatieff considers himself a liberal, so sometimes he criticizes the Bush administration. And he is an intellectual, so he has doubts about almost everything and airs them with the liberal readers of the New York Times. But in the end he shares the US government’s vision of the violent and compulsory promotion of democracy, the war against terrorism and the use of instruments, for example torture, which are apparently in need of revisionist treatment. … he has established a sort of rational framework for democratisation by force and also for the revision of our understanding of human rights. … His proposal (quoting Alan Dershowitz to cover his back) is that “the issue then becomes not whether torture can be prevented, but whether it can be regulated”. He goes even further, and seems to like the idea that when the police need to torture a suspect they could apply to a judge for a “torture warrant” that would specify the individual being tortured and set limits to the type and duration of pain allowed … In this book he plainly says that “actions which violate foundational commitments to justice and dignity … should be beyond the pale”. But next he indicates: “The problem is to protect them in practice, to maintain the limits, case by case, where reasonable people may disagree as to what constitutes torture, what detentions are illegal, which killings depart from lawful norms, or which pre-emptive actions constitute aggression.” According to Aguirre, Ignatieff also feels George W Bush could be recognized in the future as “a plain-speaker visionary”. When the WMD did not appear in Iraq, he wrote: “I never thought that the key question was what weapons Hussein actually possessed, but rather what intentions he had.”
International relations professor, Ronald Steel, wrote in the New York Times in July 2004: “Michael Ignatieff tells us how to do terrible things for a righteous cause and come away feeling good about it … but is it really true that an evil act becomes lesser simply because it is problematic? Does suffering a twinge of bad conscience justify what we do in a righteous cause? It is comforting to think so, but saying ‘this hurts me as much as it does you’ is neither true nor considered an excuse.”
In 2004, Ignatieff wrote several articles in New York Times Magazine defending both the Iraq war and Bush. On 2 May 2004 he wrote: “Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental health or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.” (The Abu Ghraib photos of hooded prisoners were released on April 28.) Michael Ignattieff was also interviewed by Charlie Rose on April 28, 2004, the day the Abu Ghraib photos were released. In the interview he is still clearly in support of the Iraq war. In late 2004, Ignattieff was interviewed on CNN about the US role in the war on terror, where he spoke of its duty to “support the right regimes”, etc. And in 2004 the Liberal Party of Canada began talks with Ignatieff asking him to come back and enter the leadership race for the Liberal Party.
Ignatieff in opposition
From the US state cables, a few points about Ignatieff’s time as the leader of the opposition in Canada:
In cable 09OTTAWA341 the Liberals were the first party Canadians tried to turn to as their ‘Not Harper’ party of choice: “some noted specifically that Ignatieff’s leadership and/or anger over Prime Minister Harper’s performance had motivated them to join the party.” The pro-US stance was apparent from the beginning. “A number of delegates cited in private conversations “synergy” between the new U.S. administration and a future Liberal government. An enthusiastic crowd cheered five images of Ignatieff with President Obama during his visit to Ottawa in February as part of a video backdrop to Ignatieff’s keynote speech to the Convention.” Traditionally, free trade and one-America type policy has been the realm of the Conservative Party, not the Liberals.
Differentiating between the parties was difficult in many cases. In 09OTTAWA377 “The efforts nonetheless put greater ideological light between the Conservatives and the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff, who has as of yet publicly identified few clear policy differences with the Conservatives.” Cable 09OTTAWA954 tells of “the New Democratic Party – which previously had boasted of voting against the government on more than 70 consecutive votes and ridiculed the Liberals for failing to act like a genuine opposition party”.
Opponents of torture and tough on crime legislation had no voice in parliament. Cable09OTTAWA452 writes: “Under new leader Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals have been careful quietly to support the robust Conservative anti-crime agenda in order to deprive the Conservatives of a wedge issue in the next election. Similarly, they are unlikely in principle to oppose, or substantially modify, the anti-terrorism bills.” Cable 10OTTAWA84 describes: “The Truth in Sentencing bill spent just over two months in the House of Commons and passed without amendment on June 8. … Reportedly, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insisted privately that the party not be seen as “soft on crime,” prompting some Liberal Senators to absent themselves from the vote.” Cable 09OTTAWA198 “noted that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was “flexible” and has a record in his life before politics of supporting robust anti-terrorism measures,” regarding the government’s reintroduced bill to amend the 2001 Anti-terrorism Act.
On the issue of Afghan detainees being handed over by Canadian forces without ensuring their safety from torture, 09OTTAWA906 states: “The opposition parties, together with Amnesty International Canada, insist that the only way to clear up the contradictions in the two versions of the story is for the government to call a public inquiry. … The detainee issue has consumed the daily parliamentary Question Period, but both PM Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff have largely absented themselves from the debate.” [Bolding added.] When Harper prorogued parliament, outlined in cable 09OTTAWA909, “Opposition Members of Parliament quickly howled in protest, with Liberal house leader Ralph Goodale calling the move “beyond arrogant, almost despotic” and a “shocking insult to democracy.”(Liberal leader Ignatieff has yet to make a public comment.) [Bolding added.] New Democratic Party house leader Libby Davies called prorogation a “political scam.” There has been widespread speculation in the media and among MPs that the Conservatives’ key goal was to block additional committee hearings on allegations of the abuse of Afghan prisoners whom the Canadian Forces had transferred to Afghan authorities.”
Cable 09OTTAWA944 opines “As in the case of post-2011 Canadian plans for Afghanistan (reftels), public interest is extremely limited, and confidence levels in the PM and the Conservatives remain relatively high.” The cable may feel that public interest was low, but Liberal voters were taking note. As is apparent.
On extending Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan war, cable 08OTTAWA124 writes “Currently all Liberal MPs are publicly onside to end the combat mission in 2009, but doubts remain over the position of deputy leader Michael Ignatieff and other Liberals who supported a continued combat role in 2006, and probably still do today.”
05OTTAWA696 reminds us: “Ignatieff is best known for his recent writings on political ethics in an age of terror, which lays out a middle course between the requirement for aggressive actions to protect liberal societies against sub-national mega-threats, and the need for Western Civilization to retain its ethical soul in the process. …
“Ignatieff opened by paying tribute to the four RCMP officers killed in the line of duty earlier in the day, reminding the audience that this brutal killing of members of a force that is the very symbol of Canada ought to invoke not only sorrow but anger among Canadians. Ignatieff’s belief in the measured and prepared use of force while also consistently trumpeting the social roots of Canadian liberalism, was a common theme. …
“… Ignatieff suggested, but need our own military, our own intelligence service, and we need to be real players in the global war on terror. He reminded the audience that Canada is next door to the main target of terrorism and must ensure it is not used as a staging ground for terrorists. He then spoke of the larger war on terror, suggesting that the central problem in failed states is security, and if Canada is going to be active working in the failed states that are the breeding ground for terrorism, its military & must be able to fire back. …With regards to missile defense Ignatieff sounded a note of caution over the party’s rejection of the BMD program. He said he understood that the government had listened to the party and the party had listened to the country. But he suggested that it was necessary to balance fear of weapons in space, with the protection of Canada’s own sovereignty.”
While Ignatieff was loudly or quietly refusing to stand up for anything Liberal voters traditionally expect their candidates to stand up for, the NDP’s Jack Layton was hard at work. Cable 10OTTAWA12 tells us “The Liberals’ muted response to PM Harper’s late December prorogation of Parliament (ref b) suggests a lack of energy and hands-on leadership (Michael Ignatieff reportedly remains on vacation in France) … Ignatieff personally trailed PM Harper on indices of trust, competence, vision and leadership, even ranking behind New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton on overall leadership and trust.” From cable 09OTTAWA766“Despite its pledge to work with the government on EI, the NDP is increasingly positioning itself as the party trying to get results for Canada’s unemployed, while the other parties only fight each other for partisan advantage and seek another expensive federal election. New NDP ads feature Layton with rolled-up sleeves, ready to “get to work.””
While the “leadership role in the world” espoused by Ignatieff consistently revolved around a greatly expanded military, Layton was, in cable 06OTTAWA3423 providing leadership of a different kind. “Jack Layton leveraged a meeting with Prime Minister Harper by threatening to bring down the Conservative minority government on a confidence vote unless Harper agreed to meet with him to discuss the Clean Air Act. … the government surprised many observers by agreeing to Layton’s proposal to send its draft legislation (C-30) directly to a “legislative committee”. … Front runner Michael Ignatieff is no Kyoto fan, whereas second-place Bob Rae is more supportive. … Federal Liberal MP John Godfrey, Bloc Quebecois MP Bernard Bigras, Quebec’s Environment Minister Claude Bechard, and Canadian environmentalists openly mocked Ambrose and derided the government’s climate change stance as “scandalous,” “idiotic,” and “ridiculous.” Bechard, whose comments were less vitriolic, said he hoped Ambrose would acknowledge Quebec’s Kyoto plan at the Conference this week. “We can’t say that Kyoto is impossible in Canada when one of the provinces, Quebec, has a plan to meet Kyoto with minimum participation from the federal government”.
The future in Canada.
Yes, Stephen Harper is a Bad Man, found in contempt of parliament and many other things, who was elected by 23% of the eligible voters, including many who were “holding their noses” and voting Anyone But NDP. Yes, he will enact policies that very few Canadians agree with, disrespect all parliamentary and legal restrictions, and, as he has promised so many times, make Canada unrecognizable in four years. But Canada is a democracy, and in four years there will be another election. If 1993 is anything to base guesses on, the Conservative party will be wiped off the political map at that point, after 4 years of unfettered, unpopular policy making. In four years the NDP will be a strong, experienced socialist leaning opposition party. In four years, some form of proportional representation may be implemented which will guarantee at least some seats for the Green, Pirate, Marijuana, etc. parties. And in four years, the Liberal Party of Canada will hopefully have woken up to the fact that Canada is a multi party democracy, the people have choice, and if they are not given a leader they can stomach they will not vote Liberal. The new leader will probably be this guy or this guy. Neither are internationally acclaimed (or reviled) intellectuals. But neither would dream of suggesting torture and pre-emptive wars to the Canadian public as Liberal ideas.
Canadians have not destroyed their home, they are just spring cleaning. This is the point where they have emptied all the closets into the middle of the room and it looks awful. But in four years, it should be much better than ever, and all credit will be to the bravery of the voters who refused to be told by any media or politicians, national or international, that they did not have a choice.