Will a Harvard Thinker Reinvigorate Canada's Liberal Party?

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It's Canada's oldest federal political party, and one that's been in power more than a string of Conservative rivals, but the Liberal Party of Canada is looking for some new direction. Desperate to bounce back from an embarrassing election defeat in January, party members will choose a new leader this weekend in Montreal, and not since Pierre Trudeau's climb to the helm of the party nearly 40 years ago have Liberals witnessed the kind of suspense and drama unfolding at their national leadership convention.

The Liberals need to shake the taint of corruption after a two-year sponsorship scandal, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars were funneled into Liberal-friendly Quebec advertising agencies in an elaborate kickback scheme in the late 1990s. Four top leadership candidates each say they are perfect for the job of reinvigorating the party and have spent eight months wooing Liberal delegates who will be casting ballots. But the campaign is ending with a contest so close no one can predict the outcome of the final vote, which will take place Saturday.

The frontrunner heading into the convention is Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor and political newcomer who has spent almost no time in Canada in the past three decades. Still, Ignatieff appeared to be the kind of ideal candidate the backroom Liberal establishment hungered for as the race began following former prime minister Paul Martin's humiliating defeat at the hands of Conservative leader Stephen Harper. For one thing, it would be impossible for opponents to place Ignatieff anywhere near the sponsorship scandal since he had been living abroad, in the United Kingdom and the U.S., since 1978. As well, Ignatieff's background — son of one of Canada's most renowned diplomats, a Russian aristocratic ancestry and a five-year term as director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy — was impeccable.

But somewhere between the starting gate and the last few laps to the finish line, things went wrong for Ignatieff. Even though the 59-year-old won 30% of the roughly 4,000 elected convention delegates from across Canada, pundits agree that any of the other three leading finalists could emerge the victor through an unprecedented schedule of two days of runoff ballots.

Ignatieff may have been harmed by several campaign gaffes, including a series of contorted positions on Israel's summer bombing campaign in Lebanon. He stated that he wouldn't "lose any sleep" over collateral damage that included the death of several Lebanese infants, then subsequently declared that Israel had committed war crimes. The blunders demonstrated the uncomfortable reality that although he is a gifted intellectual, his political instincts have never been honed. Ignatieff ended his campaign by stirring up a hornet's nest with his support for a call to recognize Quebec as a "nation" within Canada, and spent the final two weeks avoiding major public appearances prior to the convention.

Ignatieff's chief rival is also his old friend. Former Ontario New Democratic Party premier Bob Rae is as attractive a candidate for the party's moderate center-left wing as Ignatieff is to many former Martin supporters on the conservative side of the party. Ironically, Rae and Ignatieff have much in common in addition to their comparable intellectual abilities. Rae's father was also an eminent diplomat who had postings in Washington, Geneva, New York and the Hague. Rae, 58, and Ignatieff were roommates at the University of Toronto, but while Ignatieff went on to academia and writing, Rae dove into politics. As an NDP MP in Ottawa, he was instrumental in the defeat of Conservative prime minister Joe Clark's government in 1979. Rae then switched to provincial politics to lead the Ontario NDP and went on to become premier in 1990 with a surprise snap-election victory over an unpopular Liberal government.

Rae's one term as premier is his biggest albatross. Taking power on the cusp of a debilitating recession, Rae administered policies that alienated both sides of the political spectrum. His government borrowed to sustain a mounting deficit, and Rae won the enmity of his own NDP brethren with austere legislation freezing public-sector wages and forcing public servants to take an extra 10 days off each year without pay. Rae has attempted to shed his image as an inept manager, telling the Economic Club of Toronto early in the campaign that balanced budgets, competitive corporate taxes and lower individual income taxes are crucial to sustain the kind of environmental and social programs Canadians cherish.

With Rae in second place coming into the convention, the remaining two in the leading pack of candidates are Stéphane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. Dion is a 51-year-old political science professor and former federal environment minister that then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien recruited as his national unity crusader following the nearly disastrous Quebec independence referendum of 1995. Dion and Kennedy, a 46-year-old former Ontario education minister, are battling it out for third place. A Decima Research poll on the eve of the convention found that Rae led all four when respondents were asked which candidate they thought would do better against Harper in an election. Other polls, however, have shown that many Rae and Ignatieff supporters would be unwilling to vote for their main rival in subsequent ballots. The candidate who is third before the final ballot nears — likely either Dion or Kennedy — could conceivably benefit from the rivalry between the two leading camps and shoot up through the middle.

As the voting was set to begin, though, there were signs that the Liberals couldn't escape their past. Outside the convention center young New Democrats were handing out their own version of a Montreal guide to prominent tourist sites in the historic city. The NDP "Map to the Scars" showed key locations — offices, advertising firms, even a restaurant where money was allegedly handed over to party bosses in paper bags — at the center of the scandal that forced the Liberals from office. It was a reminder that it may take more than one leadership convention for the party to shed entirely the stain of scandal and corruption.