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
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
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.