When Michael Ignatieff announced his candidacy for leadership of the Liberal party, critics wondered how voters could take seriously a politician who'd been out of Canada for three decades. In response to such fears, the Harvard professor surrounded himself with some of Ottawa's most astute political advisors -- men and woman who would fill him in on local stories the Boston Globe might have consigned to the back pages, like, say, Meech Lake and Charlottetown.
But it is now apparent that experienced advisors can't compensate for a candidate without good political instincts. Indeed, Mr. Ignatieff seems to be providing us with the worst of both worlds. On one hand, his overconfidence motivates him to opine on all sorts of issues best left untouched. But rather than merely shut him up, his advisors have instead set the man's mouth to "pander" mode. The combination is an ugly paradox: the elitist populist.
This trait was on display earlier this month, when Mr. Ignatieff re-stumbled into the issue of Israel's summer war with Lebanon, reaching for the lowest common denominator of anti-Zionist Quebecois pacifism by telling French television viewers that the Jewish state was guilty of perpetrating a "war crime" in the town of Qana. (True to form, the Ignatieff camp followed up by emitting a stream of contradictory bafflegab to the English media. But by then, the damage had already been done.)
Closer to home, Mr. Ignatieff has set eyebrows rolling with his insistence that Quebec is a "nation" -- though, apparently, not a nation with an iota more rights than those permitted it by the actual nation ("Canada") in which the map shows it to be situated.
Such airy, abstract pronouncements are par for the course in the ivory tower. But here on planet Earth, they have real-life political repercussions. And so it was that an an emboldened Quebec wing of the Liberal party -- led by Ignatieff supporters -- passed a resolution over the weekend recognizing Quebec as a nation. As a result, we can now look forward to a tedious debate on the subject at the upcoming Liberal convention. No one, including Mr. Ignatieff, wants to commit political suicide in English Canada by actually reopening the constitution. But with the front-runner having raised the issue, all the candidates are obliged to go through the grim exercise of discussing the matter.
This is not just bad for Liberals, and boring for the rest of us; it is also destabilizing for Quebec itself. In recent years, the province's French nationalists have reached a tacit accommodation with Quebec's anglophone community and the rest of Canada. According to this accommodation, the union would be preserved, while the unique fact of French Canada would be recognized implicitly through a devolution of erstwhile federal powers and laws permitting the primacy of the French language.
Thanks to the stability of this unspoken agreement, Quebec's economy has prospered, and the country as a whole has been spared the existential soap operas that led up to the 1995 referendum. Now, all of that is at risk. For a man with such impeccable intellectual credentials, Mr. Ignatieff often seems quite ill-informed about the effect his careless words will produce.