Saturday, January 14, 2012

Two Speeches: the Corolla and the Ferrari...and the future of the Liberal Party

 There is an established principle in sociology about affecting change. It says that if a group that you desire to move forward is presented with a picture of where you want them to go that is too far ahead of where they are currently, they will actually regress. Several times I have witnessed this principle obstruct attempts to make substantial organizational change, especially in projects for which I was designated leader.
In politics, essentially an exercise in moving groups of people forward, sometimes (often, always?) against their will, the gestalt of the picture presented by the leader is critically important. After all, for whatever group it is, they have a past, some of which they are proud to claim, and some of which they have forgotten, some of which they are ashamed to admit is part of their responsibility. And given that past, and the picture each holds of what the future might look like, the aggregate of those pictures is often the subject of opinion polls so that leaders know just how to "frame" any issue or any group of issues, so that the group finds something exciting and challenging in the picture, something from which they both individually and collectively will benefit and nothing that makes them feel frightened about the picture presented, its feasibility or its costs.
Last night at the Liberal Party Convention in Ottawa, two speakers illustrated these themes rather vividly. First speaker was the Ontario Premier, Dalton McGuinty, a successful premier in three successive elections, and the leader of a minority government, for the first time, by a mere single seat. Otherwise he would have secured a majority in three elections. His speech concentrated in the need in political leadership to find "not what the people want right away, but what they will need in the not-too-distant future"...and move in that direction. He emphasized his government's accomplishments, in green energy, in student subsidies, in reducing wait times for surgeries, and each time his specific proposals had been turned into legislation, of which he and his party and cabinet could be proud, could speak about in public appearances without fear of rebuttal. It was a solid, if somewhat stolid, address, for which he received several standing ovations. In the course of the address, he reminded his audience that for seven years he and his party were in opposition, and failed to win their first election. He reminded his audience that he had lots to learn, while acknowledging that he did indeed learn many of those lessons.
His address, supplemented by his brother's vigorous and enthusiastic support on CPAC on Saturday morning, indicate the real possibility that his name will be one of those on the ballot when federal Liberals vote for a new leader in 2013. This is a workman-like politician, a very ordinary graduate of a Canadian law school who will never frighten anyone, but who accomplishes much, without fanfare. He reminds this observer of the largest selling car in Canada for the last decade, the Toyota Corolla. It is eminently reliable, medium priced, certainly not flashy and supremely dependable.
Following Mr. McGuinty, the former federal leader, Michael Ignatieff, spoke to the 3000+ delegates in humble and grateful words and tone, thanking them for their efforts while he was leader and pledging to support whomever the party selects as its next leader, "and I will keep my mouth shut"....In his speech, he emphasized broad themes of compassion, fairness, equality of opportunity and enthusiasm for the political process, for its team-work, its opportunity to meet and dialogue with voters, even dubbing door knocking as "the Socratic dialogue" until his young workers told him he had to move on and not answer every nuance of every question because there just isnt' time. A brilliant man and mind, (Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail says he has never met anyone whose I.Q. spiked as far off the charts as Michael Ignatieff's!) Mr. Ignatieff may well have been the political equivalent of the Italian Ferrari,  albeit born in Russia. After earning his Ph.D. from Harvard University, he was elected a Senior Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge. He has taught at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the University of California, the University of London and the London School of Economics where he eventually became the Carr Professor and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Last night, he struck precisely the right tone of humility and gratitude in delivering what could easily be his last formal speech to Liberal Party convention delegates, certainly the one on which his "attitude" for future contributions will be based. He was not running for anything; he was not seeking approval; he was merely articulating his truth that he gave everything he had, "God knows I did, and I left everything on the table but I did not get there"..."but somewhere there is a young man or woman just as I was at seventeen when I first listened to Mike Pearson, and later to Pierre Trudeau, and that young man or woman is thinking, 'I could do what he does and I could do it better'....and you will get there and that will make everything I tried to do worthwhile."
And his depth of understanding both of himself and his context and audience, his depth of commitment to the cause, and his acknowledgement of failing to win the election are precisely the kind of leadership that people in all countries crave....we could call it the political equivalent of that Italian Ferrari that most people consider their dream car.
Yet, Mr. Ignatieff may have been a little too sophisticated and a little too generous and a little too much of a visionary for an electorate that could not grasp the details of his picture of fairness, equality, compassion and generosity.Those words, used often during the campaign last Spring, did not paint specific pictures; they painted a
picture that some might term "impressionistic" in hindsight, a picture that only a first-rate mind could and would paint on a canvas that pitted him against a political "pit-bull" by comparison (Harper) and it was Ignatieff's passion near the end of his speech last night, in his words "Don't ever give up! Don't ever give in! Don't ever let them define you! Don't ever settle! Fight for what you believe in! And you will get there!" ....that left this observer both thankful that he had taken his party leadership on the Canadian political stage, that his example will continue to inspire and that, while we do need Corolla's, it is clearly worth the time to speculate on what a Ferrari would have been like as a national leader....But this is a time of "micro" pictures aided and applied by micro technology, whose visionaries seem to have taken over all positions in leadership, creativity and social and political direction.
Canadians once called Robert Stanfield the best Prime Minister we never had; now we might add Michael Ignatieff's name to that list.

Post Script:
It would have been courageous for the planners of this convention if, in addition to Don Tapscott, they could also have invited John Ralston Saul to address delegates, so that "where" the party would and could take the country could have been just as important and worthy of delegate consideration as "how" the party is going to get there.
The fixation on the "means" without the "ends" is just as disappointing in this convention as it is in the Harper design of foreign policy. Is Canada in danger of becoming a nation of "how" experts to the denial and detriment of "big thinking where" experts? Is that another way of interpreting Mr. Ignatieff's election numbers?

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