War of egos in Quebec blows up in Ignatieff's face

Liberal leader must smooth the tension between Martin and Chrétien factions

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, September 30, 2009

For Michael Ignatieff, September has been the cruellest month, and can't end soon enough. But the potentially fatal political wounds he has suffered this month are entirely self-inflicted.

He began the month by declaring at a Liberal caucus meeting: "Mr. Harper, your time is up," a quote he couldn't climb down from, and which he gave as a hostage to fortune.

He set the Liberal Party on course for an election it wasn't ready for, and set the country on the road to an election it doesn't want. This time, Canadians really, really mean it when they say they don't want an election. Just to quantify that, a Nanos Research poll for Policy Options, being released tonight, shows that three Canadians out of four, and even two Liberal voters out of three, don't want an election. As pollster Nik Nanos comments: "That's a very hard number."

Question: How come Ignatieff's pollster didn't give him that information a month ago, before his Sudbury declaration of war on the minority Conservative government?

Everyone knows what was on Ignatieff's mind - he was trying to get the monkey of supporting the government off his back, and shift that burden to the NDP. But in doing so, he gave Jack Layton the balance of power and the opportunity to appear both relevant and responsible. And Layton has seized the moment, on the very strong pretext of supporting extended EI payments of $1 billion to 200,000 families. And by the way, how are the Liberals going to vote on that?

But beyond that, having called for the government's defeat, Ignatieff has utterly failed over the last month to provide a single compelling reason why the Harper government should be defeated as the country rides out the worst economic downturn in three generations.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have just spent $2 million on a TV buy with Iggy sitting in the middle of a forest, telling us "we can do better" as a country. That's an empty message and it hasn't moved one vote to the Liberals.

If anything, the Liberals' poll numbers have weakened over the last month, and Ignatieff's leadership scores have crashed, as Canadians express their disapproval at the prospect of an election.

Still, Ignatieff presses on, with a non-confidence motion to be called in the House tomorrow. It would serve him right if the NDP and Bloc joined him to defeat the government, because right now they are saving him from going into an election anywhere from six to 10 points behind. At this point, Layton is saving Ignatieff from himself. But Layton also has a free pass - even if he pulls the trigger, it's Ignatieff who'll be blamed.

And in the last week, Ignatieff has lost control of his caucus over what began as a clash of egos and ambition between Martin Cauchon and Denis Coderre over the nomination in Outremont. At first Ignatieff was unequivocal in his support of Coderre, "my Quebec lieutenant," in blocking Cauchon's return.

But Cauchon enlisted other allies, notably Jean Chrétien, Bob Rae and the Toronto guys around Ignatieff. Astonishingly, Rae went public with his support of Cauchon, saying "room must be found" for him, kneecapping the leader in the process. Ignatieff then offered Cauchon the riding of Jeanne-Le Ber on Thursday, going public without knowing Cauchon's response, which was Outremont or nothing. Ignatieff capitulated on Friday, completely undercutting Coderre as the political boss in Quebec.

A clash of ambitions, which rapidly escalated to a battle between the party's warring Chrétien and Martin clans, went nuclear on Monday when Coderre quit as Quebec lieutenant, chief organizer and, for good measure, as defence critic.

While he salvaged his own dignity, saying he no longer had the "moral authority" for the role, he savaged the leader, saying he had succumbed to "Toronto advisers who know nothing about the social and political realities of Quebec."

Since the time of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to the present day, the Liberal Party has been built on the twin pillars of Quebec and Ontario, and the unity of French and English-speaking Canadians.

What began as a minor turf war of contending egos, and then became a battle of warring clans, has now been taken by Coderre to another level altogether, one which goes to the core of the party's existence - one pitting Quebec against Ontario, Toronto against Montreal, and English against French.

For Ignatieff, this is both intolerable and unsustainable. He cannot have this, not in the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Chrétien and Martin.

 
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