Michael Ignatieff’s convention speech: a critical reading of the text

It’s short. That’s the first thing to note about Michael Ignatieff’s keynote speech here at the Liberals’ biennial convention in Vancouver. At just eight pages, a lot shorter than Jean Chretien’s and Stephane Dion’s rambles last night.

It’s short. That’s the first thing to note about Michael Ignatieff’s keynote speech here at the Liberals’ biennial convention in Vancouver. At just eight pages, a lot shorter than Jean Chretien’s and Stephane Dion’s rambles last night.

He opens with the requisite Canucks reference. (No complaint from this quarter: I was at the Friday night nail-biter against Chicago, and my right arm is still stiff from waving that Vancouver white towel in the air.)

“We are the big tent of Canadian life,” he boasts to get things rolling, “where all find welcome and all can be sure their voice will be heard.”

Ignatieff suggests that Canadians invest a lot of hope in the Liberal party: “If we offer our fellow citizens a message of hope, I believe Canadians will ask us to form their next government,” he says. “When they do, all our efforts will be focused on one task: to unite our people again.”

But are Canadians really so disunited that it would take a new government’s entire focus to rectify the situation?

I realize he’s not specifically speaking about Quebec here—Ignatieff seems to be suggesting a broader sort of unity malaise than the old wither-Quebec sort. Still, I’m reminded of Stéphane Dion’s frequent complaints about Canadian politicians who turn every challenge they face into an existential issue of national unity. Dion had his moments of wisdom.

Ignatieff soon gets to an example of what he says is standing in the way of Canadian unity. “To unite our people, to treat everybody fairly, while this [economic] crisis lasts, we need a common national standard of eligibility for Employment Insurance. But that’s just the beginning.”

I guess it would be.

Pursuing the recession as the issue of the moment, he comes to what I find a surprising conclusion about what’s required to end it. “A strategy for recovery must be a strategy for learning,” he says. “We must create a society where learning is a way of life and learning is life-long.”

Well, sounds good. But worthy as life-long learning might well be at any time, how does education policy amount to a strategy for recovery just now? He’s blurring very different economic challenges here if he’s suggesting that recovering from the recession is somehow identical to making sure Canadians have sufficient skills to thrive for decades to come.

He sticks to his guns on this: “The way out of this slump is hard, but the direction is clear. In the union hall, in the lecture hall, in the concert hall, wherever one Canadian is teaching another to do something they never thought possible, far-sighted government must be there to provide the resources to help everyone realize their full potential.”

Once again, I don’t get the connection. The way out of the slump, or so I’ve heard, is likely a mix of sustained low interest rates, Bank of Canada interventions to boost commercial bank lending, an injection of infrastructure spending, an effort through international bodies to fight protectionist tendencies—all that sort of thing.

The good stuff Ignatieff sees happening in all those halls is something else entirely. With all due respect to teachers of every sort, they don’t boost consumer spending or business investment.

When he moves out into the world, his natural strong suit, Ignatieff gives Canadians a collective pat on the back. “In the 1990s I reported on the ethnic wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. I worked in countries torn apart by hatred,” he says. “When I came home I realized that in a world ravaged by hatred, we remain a light unto the nations. This is the moral purpose of our country: to teach tolerance, diversity and citizenship to a troubled world.”

Some will find this maple syrup too thick to pour. I like it.

And I like it even more when he reaches into his own experience in the splintering former Yugoslavia to underline the point. “I had just crossed a checkpoint guarded by two Canadian peacekeepers,” he says, “when I was arrested by a group of paramilitaries and thrown into a van. They were waving weapons around and they were about to drive off when a hand reached in through the window, yanked out the key and a Canadian voice said: ‘We’ll do this my way.’ That peacekeeper, that voice, that brave man—from Moncton, New Brunswick—did it the Canadian way.”

Canadian political oratory is generally too bland, too generic, too divorced from the personal story of the orator. It can only make the language of our political discourse more engaging if Ignatieff keeps reaching into his personal kit bag of exotic anecdotes to add colour to his speeches.

Soon he’s come around to the inevitable attack on Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “For three years,” Ignatieff accuses, “you have played province against province, group against group, region against region, individual against individual.”

And he’s back to the unity theme: “You have failed to understand that a prime minister has one job and one job only: to unite the people of this country.”

If that were true, this would be one pathetic country. Canadians are united, not by the will of their prime ministers, but by their common history, their shared institutions, the dense thatch of their networks of civil connections—travel, education, commerce, family, popular culture (including sports), and, yes, national political parties.

Yes, we’ve been plunged on occasion into a true national unity crisis, so it’s always good to have a prime minister in office who’s up to the task of coping with one. But that can’t be a prime minister’s prime concern, let alone his “one job.” The job is running the federal government, which can’t be boiled down to a catchphrase.

Ignatieff sums up by calling for the Liberal party to make Canadians the “best educated and most entrepreneurial” of any country. Given that interesting dual goal, I would have liked to have heard something more precise about what he thinks should be done to reform education and encourage entrepreneurship.

(On on the first part, he did get a big ovation when he defined a “knowledge society” as one in which “every child gets and equal start with world-class early learning and childcare.” It will be worth watching closely for how that pledged is shaped into a platform in the coming months.)

Taken as a whole, this speech was not a clunker, but hardly a landmark either. The good news for Liberals is that the delivery was stronger than the words on the page.

Ignatieff brings a sort of restraint to the cornier lines that makes then easier to swallow, and he has learned how to hit the last two or three words of an otherwise unexceptional sentence hard, lending it an impact beyond its bare meaning. “If you can’t unite Canadians,” he says, addressing Harper directly, “if you can’t appeal to the best in all of us, WE CAN.” (Wild cheering and beating of thunder sticks.)

But leaning so heavily on the traditional Liberal theme of unity seemed to me to ring hollow at a time when the country’s unity does not seem much at issue. He needs another core message. Maybe he’ll develop that education-plus-entrepreneurship message. Today, though, Ignatieff as political stump speaker seemed a work in progress.