Why Iggy plays well in Quebec

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Thursday, December 18, 2008

With Michael Ignatieff's installation as Liberal leader, the party gets to turn the page on its troubles in Quebec and begin a new era of political opportunity.

The storied Liberal brand has been burdened by a quarter century of mishaps and misfortune in Quebec--from the unilateral patriation of the Constitution, to the death of Meech Lake, to the Clarity Act and the sponsorship scandal. If you think of the Liberal brand as the McDonald's of Canadian politics, every one of these menu problems has driven customers away in droves. And the last manager of the franchise, Stephane Dion, was a local guy hardly anyone liked.

Ignatieff carries none of the party's burdensome legacy, and none of the personal animosity evident toward Dion, a native son but no favourite son of Quebec.

Iggy was out of the store, indeed out of the country, when all that stuff happened. He's not tarnished by any of those events. If anything, his resume as a public intellectual with significant international credentials enhances his standing in Quebec. Only his support for the 2003 U. S. invasion of Iraq, when he famously wrote "we" in The New York Times Magazine, has counted against him here, and that was in the last leadership cycle in 2006, not in the current one going into 2009.

But even in the 2006 leadership round, Ignatieff had by far the strongest base of support in Quebec, the best organizers such as Denis Coderre and the most articulate advocates such as Liza Frulla. Even then, Ignatieff understood the Liberals had to make a fresh start in Quebec. It's generally forgotten now that the Quebecois nation resolution proposed by Stephen Harper and adopted by the House in November, 2006, began with a similar motion Ignatieff brought to the floor of the Liberal leadership convention in Montreal. In his first bid to be the new CEO of Liberal Inc., Ignatieff instinctively knew the party needed new menu offerings in Quebec.

Ignatieff may not be from here, but he fits in here. He has a cosmopolitan finish and easy fluency in French that enhances his public conversations. In short, he interviews well. He's passed difficult Quebec tests, such as obligatory appearances on the popular Tout le monde en parle TV show. And as he has just demonstrated in mounting a bloodless coup for the Liberal leadership, he also has a flair for what Quebecers call the "velvet glove and the fist of steel." His fingerprints aren't anywhere on the glove.

In essence, a strong leader with style. Quebecers like that.

This isn't to say that Ignatieff won't have difficulties going forward in Quebec. Every new leader gets put on a pedestal and then knocked off it. Even at 61, Ignatieff is new. He has the opportunity to introduce himself to Quebecers, and to explain his sense of its role in the federation, always a top consideration. The next election, whenever it comes, will be his first, while it will be Stephen Harper's fourth, and Gilles Duceppe's sixth.

In establishing a 10-seat Quebec beachhead in 2006, Harper smashed the polarization of the vote between the Liberals and Bloc. Harper offered a respectable place for frustrated federalists and soft nationalists to go, with his promise of "open federalism." What he meant was classical federalism, respecting the constitutional division of powers, limiting the federal spending power in provincial jurisdiction and resolving the vertical fiscal imbalance, all of which he delivered on. The Quebecois nation business was a bonus --and as mentioned, it began with Ignatieff.

The 2008 federal election in Quebec was another story, a missed opportunity of historic dimensions for Harper, who got whipsawed by Duceppe on his culture and crime packages as being alien to Quebecois values, a debate the Prime Minister had no chance of winning. Harper has more re-building to do here after the final days of the Quebec election, which played out against his denunciations of "the separatist coalition" in Ottawa.

The result of the coalition crisis is that Harper doesn't have Dion to kick around anymore. He's now looking at a real opponent, one with a real chance of restoring the Liberals as the competitive federalist option in Quebec.

 
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