Not much new in Ignatieff's vision

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Michael Ignatieff's recent speech at the University of Ottawa maps out his liberal vision of Canadian politics.

It begins with a bit of personal apologetics as he continues to struggle to smooth over concerns about his Canadian identity and his hawkish stance on the Iraq war.

Mr. Ignatieff highlights the Canadian colours of a public intellectual who has spent much of his adult life outside the country. He documents how his credentials meet current liberal standards for Canadian identity: immigrant family background, some heartfelt Canadian "memories," literary interests, journalistic experience, and connections to the CBC. (Hockey's out for these new latte liberals.) He explains how his strong support for the invasion of Iraq is consistent with his current conviction that the Liberals took the high road in deciding to keep Canada out of the Iraq war. Jean Chrétien's "proof is a proof is a proof" babble is now proof enough for him.

Mr. Ignatieff proclaims that Canada is his kind of country and Canadians are his kind of people. His big insight about our national spirit is that Canadians are "a serious people." But he complains that we really "haven't taken ourselves seriously enough." He really has been away too long. What about the good-natured humour and self-effacing modesty that adorns most Canadian achievements? The stellar Canadian virtue is that Canadians don't take themselves "too seriously," even when they serve with heroism.

After the apologetics, Mr. Ignatieff begins to sketch his political vision of Canada. What's new in Mr. Ignatieff's new vision of liberalism? Not much. His liberalism is in lockstep with the older Trudeau/Chrétien tradition. Mr. Ignatieff envisages an active, robust nation-state armed with rights, money, military clout, environmental plans, and an obsession with "national unity."

He places himself in continuity with "the continuous tradition of political innovation that has flowed from Quebec and inspired the rest of Canada, from the Quiet Revolution onwards." Needless to say, he's hooking his wagon to the Trudeau-Chrétien line of Quebec "political innovation," not the Lesage-Ryan or the Lévesque-Bouchard line. To oversee the smooth transfer of this ideological torch, former stalwarts of the old Chrétien/Trudeau camp - Marc Lalonde (he's back?) and David Smith, Chrétien's former campaign manager - are, according to insiders, taking charge of the Ignatieff campaign.

What would the new Liberal machine look like under Mr. Ignatieff? On federal-provincial relations, Mr. Ignatieff is opposed to any transfer of federal fiscal power to the provinces. He is committed to creatively using the fiscal power of the federal government to redress economic imbalances and inequalities in Canada. Individuals who suffer from regional economic disadvantages can seek succour from the national state. Nothing new here.

Mr. Ignatieff talks of jurisdictional "recognition" and "respect." But he is quick to denounce modest gestures to accommodate the international concerns of a federalist provincial government in Quebec as "dangerous games" that undermine national unity. Welcome back to the inane fixations of an ideological federalism that has done such a wonderful job fanning the flames of separatism over the past few decades.

Mr. Ignatieff did not outline his strong views on rights and Charter issues. However, his views are on the public record in his numerous books and articles. Mr. Ignatieff, like Pierre Trudeau, advances a zealous form of individualistic liberalism. Both argue that the rights and freedoms of individuals can only be defended by a strong national state armed with authoritative constitutional charters and powerful courts. Both celebrate an aggressively liberal "just watch me" attitude. In their view, the nation-state must have the political will to use its coercive power in defending their particular vision of individual rights both nationally and internationally.

What's wrong with this vision? The most troubling feature is its very jaundiced view of the soft-shelled institutions of civil society. Mr. Ignatieff sees civil society associations as potential threats to the autonomy of the individual, rather than essential parts of the fabric of personal existence that need protection from the state. He rejects the limited "political liberalism" advanced by classic liberal theorists such as Locke, Tocqueville and Rawls. This historic form of liberalism argued for the protection of civil society institutions from the coercive power of the state. In this view, "rights" establish a shield protecting civil society from the state.

However, for Mr. Ignatieff the basic institutions of civil society - family and religion - present serious threats to human freedom. His brand of liberalism tears down the firewall between the state and civil society. "Rights," Mr. Ignatieff argues, "are meaningful only if they confer entitlements and immunities on individuals; they are worth having only if they can be enforced against institutions like the family, the state and the church." Rights are to be used as swords against core spheres of civil society, not shields to protect them.

But here's the rub. Who gets to wield this powerful sword of rights against family and religion? Who else, but the righteous Liberal state through its courts and legislatures? In short, individuals are to be liberated by the coercive power of the state. The aggressive implications of this approach are outlined in Mr. Ignatieff's discussion of family culture in "The Rights Revolution," part of the Massey Lectures series. Mr. Ignatieff argues that we need to bring "rights talk" into the bedrooms of the nation. Rights, he insists, must be used to re-engineer society's most basic social relationships between women and men, parents and children.

This brand of liberalism wants to use the state to impose its own social vision on society: to create a society composed of autonomous individuals, freely forging, dissolving and reforging their relationships. In this view, the state must be constantly working to weaken those civil society institutions that get in the way of this free-wheeling individualism.

Mr. Ignatieff wants folk to get the message that he's a very "serious" dude with a "serious" message. Teaming up with Lalonde & Co. does promise to resurrect an aggressive national liberalism, with all its doctrinaire combativeness, but without any Trudeauesque charm or comic relief.

Daniel Cere teaches political science at McGill University.