Monday, September 14, 2009

Canada, Canada, where art thou Canada? The Liberal Critique

This afternoon, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff addressed the Canadian Club of Ottawa and used the occasion to deliver a critique of the Tory government's approach to foreign policy.

Entitled "Canada's Place in a Changing World" (go to for the complete text), the speech was seen as an opportunity for Mr. Ignatieff to address one of the persistent criticisms leveled at him - a failure to articulate his vision for the country.

As speeches and critiques go, this was a well-crafted and well-delivered piece of work. Mr. Ignatieff's articulate assessment of how Canada's role in the world has been diminished over the past few years will resonate with many involved in foreign policy, aid, development and conflict resolution. Moreover, the more red Torys who have never been comfortable with Mr. Harper will have appreciated his nod to the Mulroney government's strong stance on apartheid.

His position is that Canada has a long history - through both Liberal and Conservative governments - of looking to lead in the world on a range of issues. For him, the traditional middle power and honest broker role that earned successive governments respect has waned under Mr. Harper's watch. Numerous examples are cited throughout the first part of the speech.

The second part of the speech begins to lay out his vision of a Liberal government's approach to foreign policy (expect the text from the speech to feature prominently in their platform). Fewer specifics here - "we will reach out" and the like - but a number of markers around what diplomacy would mean for the Liberals and the areas in which they will focus.

As I said, it was well-crafted and struck a nice balance by making an effort to remind Canadians of our successes , while at the same time attacking the government for its perceived failures. The question is does this matter to the ordinary voter?

As we are so often reminded, "all politics is local" with elections won and lost on domestic issues. Nixon may have likened domestic policy to be akin to worrying about "outhouses in Peoria", but local is what voters traditionally relate to. Will the question of who is invited to attend the G-8 be a ballot-box question? Likely not.

However, should similar pieces follow on issues that do resonate with the wider public including the economy, health care, the environment, and social policy then today's speech will simply be another piece in the Ignatieff puzzle.

See for me, right now he's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle but we don't have the picture on the box to know what the image - in this case a Liberal government - will look like. In the absence of the picture, we struggle to see how the few pieces that are thrown our way will fit together.

Mr. Ignatieff is doing the right thing by reminding us that we have a role to play in the international community. We now need to see similar focus, critique and alternatives presented on other issues. Only then will we have enough of a picture to make a clear choice.

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