Ignatieff cracks the Quebec identity code

He doesn't care if they choose Quebec or Canada first, so long as they choose both

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, April 3, 2009

The major news in Michael Ignatieff's address to the Liberal leader's annual fundraising dinner on Wednesday night was that he finally agreed to use a teleprompter, a 20th century invention that has been in use by politicians since the time of Lyndon Johnson.

Ignatieff's staff was much more nervous about how he would do on the teleprompter than anything in the text rolling before his eyes. The answer is that he did quite well, glancing easily back and forth to the glass teleprompter plates on either side of the podium. In a Eureka moment, Ignatieff made the astonishing discovery that the text moves at exactly the speed at which it is read, invisible to the audience, with whom he appeared to be making eye contact.

This was in marked contrast to a major address to another party rally in Montreal just two weeks ago, where Ignatieff ploughed through a text in French, hardly ever taking his eye off the page. He didn't seem to understand the difference between a lecture hall full of students enthralled by his brilliance, and a political crowd wanting to give him a standing ovation. It's the difference between the Harvard Yard and Tammany Hall.

If you can't lift it from the page, you can't lift them from their seats. It's a universal principle, a lesson to be learned by all academics who join the political fray, and in that regard Ignatieff's leadership is very much a work in progress. He has what it takes, he's just not there yet.

How is Ignatieff's performance in French to be compared with his English? Much more measured. His accent is commendable, but his delivery still flat and slow. No one is criticizing him for that, but he's much better in news conferences, or television interviews, than the formal setting of a speech.

In one sense, Ignatieff and his handlers have a common challenge in both languages --how to present a Harvard boy, descended from Russian nobility, as a tribune of the people. Part of the problem is that Ignatieff does not easily hide his light under a bushel. Even when making light of the Conservatives combing through his writings for embarrassing material, Ignatieff could not resist pointing out in Toronto that "I wrote 16 books." Or as Bob Rae put it in introducing his friend and rival of a lifetime: "Michael has written more books than the entire Conservative caucus has read." Ha-ha. But then, Liberals don't do humility very well.

But the main difference between Ignatieff in Toronto and Montreal, in Ontario and Quebec, is one of emphasis in his message. In Quebec, the speech is tailored to the political sensibilities of the audience. Ignatieff would never have told a Toronto audience, as he did in Montreal, that he didn't care whether they identified themselves as Quebecers (or Ontarians) first and Canadians second, as long as they chose both.

Ontarians have never seen themselves that way, in terms of their dual identity. They have always put Canada first. In Quebec, identity politics is much more nuanced-- there is a sense of belonging to both, and Quebecers don't like being asked to choose, or even prioritize. And in that sense, Ignatieff is on to something in Quebec.

Since Laurier's time, the enduring Liberal coalitions have been built in Ontario and Quebec. But in the quarter-century since the 1984 election, the Liberal brand has been in decline in Quebec, beaten down by the unilateral patriation of the Constitution, the demise of Meech Lake and the sponsorship scandal. In the last two elections, the Liberals have all but disappeared from the electoral map in the 50 Quebec seats outside Montreal.

Ignatieff may not be a career pol, but he clearly understands that there is no easy path to government, and no path at all to a majority, without a road that leads through Quebec. And in playing the identity game, he is clearly making a bid for soft Bloc voters, and hoping to replace the Conservatives as the competitive federalist party in the rest of Quebec outside Montreal. If he's successful, he stands to win 25 to 30 seats in the next election, which could take him to the doorstep of majority.

Which is where the echo effect would kick in -- if Ontarians got wind that Quebecers were returning to the Liberal fold, that would help Ignatieff, the first Liberal leader from Ontario since Pearson, to close the deal in his home province. And this is where the performance narrative would converge -- winning is the same in both official languages.

 
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