If I understand this article correctly Ignatieff is out of touch in the sense that at times he is unaware of powerful and often sinister political forces at work in Canada. For example, he made the error of forcefully and logically condemning the Canadian export of asbestos, not realising that he should kowtow to an important asbestos lobby in Quebec. He also forthrightly and logically condemned some Israeli actions in Lebanon as war crimes ignoring the power of pro-Israel lobbyists in Canada. I guess we can relax in that Ignatieff is learning rather quickly to get back in touch with his roots in Canadian power brokers and is being coached to lead the true north strong and free.
Ignatieff's Turner problem
TheStar.com - Insight - Ignatieff's Turner problem
May 09, 2009 Thomas Walkom
On March 28, at a public gathering in Victoria designed to showcase his talents, federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was asked a simple question about asbestos.
A known carcinogen, asbestos is no longer used in Canada. In fact, as the questioner noted, the federal government is currently removing asbestos from Canada's parliament buildings in order to protect the health of MPs and senators.
Yet at the same time, Ottawa actively supports the export of asbestos to the developing world.
"Do you, sir, support an end to Canada's exports of...asbestos to developing countries?" she asked, according to a recording of the exchange.
"I'm probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I'm unaware," Ignatieff replied. "But if asbestos is bad for parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else. So you have to be right, and our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop."
It was a clear answer – unequivocal, logical and, in broad public policy terms, almost certainly correct.
But given the importance of the asbestos mining industry in Quebec and the power of the asbestos lobby in Ottawa, it was also decidedly impolitic – so much so that within four days Ignatieff was forced to ignominiously back-pedal, insisting that he meant only that Canada should warn potential buyers about any dangers posed by the mineral.
A small incident? Perhaps. But it also highlights what may turn out to be Ignatieff's greatest political weakness: He is out of touch.
Indeed, as someone who has spent most of his adult life in Britain and the U.S., he cannot help but be out of touch with Canada – in this particular case with a jobs-versus-health debate over asbestos that has been going on here since the 1980s.
When Ignatieff is asked about his decision to seek Canada's prime ministership after spending more than a quarter-century living abroad, he tends to answer in moral terms, suggesting that critics are questioning his patriotism.
"There's a funny idea out there that you can only be a Canadian if you lived in the country the whole time," he told the Toronto Star's Sandro Contenta recently. "It doesn't seem to me to make any sense. More than 1 million Canadians live and work outside of the country at any one time. Are we saying they are less good Canadians than the people who never leave?"
But the real question is not whether Ignatieff loves Canada. It is whether, after all those years immersing himself in the political debates of his adopted countries (during his U.S. interlude he would write about "we Americans"), he still has an intuitive grasp of what's going on in his native land. For any politician, this is a crucial skill.
Consider the sad case of John Turner. Handsome, charismatic, politically experienced, heir-apparent to Pierre Trudeau, he won the leadership of the Liberal party handily in 1984.
Turner hadn't been living abroad. But he'd been out of Canadian politics for almost a decade. By the time he checked back in, the country had changed ever so subtly.
At first, few paid attention to Turner's occasional gaffes, malapropisms and out-of-date slang.
But over the course of the ensuing federal election campaign, the media – and voters – began to notice that in some indefinable sense he was out of sync. By the end, Turner had been transformed into a figure of fun who told dated jokes and patted women's posteriors – a specimen from the 1950s frozen in time and blissfully unaware of the nuances of the Canada he hoped to lead.
Even the cosmopolitan star quality that had originally stood him in good stead, such as his fabled pas de deux with the Queen's sister, was by the end of that campaign viewed as a liability that demonstrated his distance from ordinary Canadians.
"When I was driving a truck, John Turner was dancing with Princess Margaret," Brian Mulroney, the winner of that 1984 election, would tell delighted audiences.
For Ignatieff, the problem has less to do with style (his seems appropriately post-modern) than with content. It's hard to keep up with a place that you visit only during summer holidays – which is why, with the exception of troubled states like Somalia, so few countries seek out expatriates to lead them.
Today, Ignatieff talks of those annual holidays, particularly to an uncle's farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, as events that kept him linked to Canada. But in a 1993 essay, he marvelled at how removed from the actual reality of Canada and Quebec those summer visits were.
"The myth I grew up believing was that Canada was a partnership between two peoples," he wrote in Blood and Belonging. "Yet I never actually met any Québécois when I was growing up. ...When I went to Quebec, I went to the English-speaking Eastern Townships, to a house where my Russian grandparents lived."
In many ways, he still seems removed. Take, for instance, his 2006 suggestion that Israel committed war crimes in Lebanon. Faced with howls of protest from within his own party, he quickly reversed himself.
At one level, that was just the standard story of a politician weaving and ducking. But in a more fundamental way, the Israel gaffe – like the asbestos gaffe – demonstrated Ignatieff's ignorance of the modern political Canadian landscape.
In the `60s, during the time of former prime minister Lester Pearson, it might have been relatively easy for a mainstream Canadian politician to criticize Israel. These days, it's virtually impossible without being labelled a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or both.
That Ignatieff reverts to Pearsonian notions is no accident. In speeches and interviews, he lauds the former prime minister. Ignatieff clearly approves of Pearson's concept of the prudently activist state (the emphasis here being on the word prudent) as well as his success in crafting a foreign policy that was pro-American without being craven.
At an important level, his admiration of Pearsonian Canada is almost certainly genuine. But at the same time, it's hard not to suspect that Ignatieff fixes on Pearson because the Canada of the 1960s is the Canada he knows best – the country in which he grew up and from which he eventually escaped so he could, as he writes in his latest book, True Patriot Love, "go out into the bright world beyond and play the palace."
Now, to mixed reviews, that palace engagement is over. He's back from gigs on the big stage in Harvard and London and desperately trying to catch up with what's been going on in the global equivalent of little theatre.
Incidentally, he's a quick learner. His latest position on asbestos, as reported in Le Devoir this week, is that Canada should not export materials that cause health problems.
Left unclear in this much more politically astute response was whether Quebec asbestos is such a material. Its supporters deny that it is.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday and Saturday.