At first they won’t admit it. But over time – and usually over drinks – Ottawa Liberals are starting to confess a deep concern that their current leader may be their most right of centre yet -- and that this will have a very real consequence in the next election.
His cosmopolitan and intellectual aura aside, on the environment, the Iraq war, violence as a means to an end and on things ordinary people actualy care about, Ignatieff's opinions are almost indistinguishable from Harper's. New Democrats have already begun to seize on the homogenization with this biting commentary.
Contextually this makes sense. The Liberal Party has been inexorably drifting to the right over the past 25 years. The Chretien-Martin era marked new low point for progressives. The governing Liberals slashed $25 billion from health and education and downloaded it to the provinces, they eliminated the federal role in social housing, they gave tens of billions worth of incentives to the oil and gas sector, they put us into a war in Kandahar without a clear mission, and they pushed through a reactionary anti-terror bill, complete with draconian security certificates. So, it is almost a given that whomever leads them now should necessarily be more individualistic, more laissez faire, more hawkish and less committed to basic notions of fairness than the one previous. Ignatieff fills the bill, and then some.
Another measure is this: the Liberal Party of Trudeau and Pearson was home to some of the most out-spoken, risk-taking progressives of their era -- like Tom Kent, Allan MacEachen, Warren Allmand, Paul Martin Sr., Monique Begin, and Pauline Jewett.
Yet where are these people in today’s Liberal Party? They aren’t there; or if they are there, they are so timid and neutered in a party that equates hacking away at health and education as providing tax “relief” that “social justice” is spoken of with the same mindless monotony as an advertising jingle.
None of this is to say that recent Liberals have not done or promised progressive things. It is just that on balance, the party is far more to the right than it’s ever been. The result is that given the choice of taking a decision favourable to Conservatives or New Democrats, one could safely predict today's Liberals would take the former.
In the desperate days of the 2004 election Paul Martin threw long and declared that Liberals and New Democrats “share the same values”. The snicker-worthy intonation being that if Liberals weren’t Liberals they would be New Democrats.
The move won him votes, but it also won Liberals much more scrutiny of their record by centre left Canadians.
Given the choice of an Ignatieff-led Liberal Party – a party that a month ago agreed to prop up the Conservatives for a 79th time in exchange for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to collaborate with Pierre Poilievre on a private members bill – or the New Democrats who are showing in Manitoba and Nova Scotia that progressive parties can govern with their values in 2009, it’s a good bet progressive Canadians will be attracted to the more hopeful choice.
The scrap over who has the better conservative ideas will be fought out by these two men.