When the Gods Changed

By Peter C. Newman

In the May 2011 Canadian federal election the Conservative Party finally achieved a majority of seats in parliament, thus putting an end to a long period of rule by the Liberals, Canada’s “Natural Government Party.” This, surprisingly, came as a surprise to veteran political journalist Peter C. Newman, who was preparing to write a book about the man he assumed was going to be our next prime minister, the Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

We still got the book, only now it takes the form of a campaign post-mortem as well as a more general account of the rise and demise of the Liberal party. With regard to the latter, it strikes too high a tone, right from the Götterdämmerung title and baffling epigraph from Dostoyevsky. In fact, the Liberal slip from power was the predictable result of various obvious factors, from the slow political revolution that saw the uniting of the right and the splintering of the left (with the abandonment of the middle), and the dismal legacy of years of Liberal arrogance, complacency, and scandal. There was nothing tragic in the Liberal “Armageddon” (Newman’s word), but rather something comic, with the election playing out like a Ken Finkleman mockumentary.

Nor was Michael Ignatieff a tragic hero, despite Newman’s earnest psychoanalysis and best, if sometimes backhanded, efforts at rehabilitation (“at times he was unexpectedly impressive”). There were no good candidates for the Liberal leadership after Jean Chretien finally left the stage, but the former Harvard professor may have been the worst (his only competition, in this regard, coming from Bob Rae, who in fact succeeded him). Indeed, in Newman’s interviews and backroom reportage Ignatieff inadvertently comes across as another part of the comic drama, almost a stereotype of the academic out of his element (and drowning). Still, compared to the party hacks of the Liberal establishment – both old and new – that we see in action, Ignatieff comes up shining.

Newman, a self-confessed collector of anecdotes, offers up a nice selection here as he tells the tale. And though gentle in his criticism, he does add a pointed commentary. In particular, while regretting the passing of the Liberal era, he is dismayed at how, faced with the most polarizing political figure in Canadian history, Ignatieff was unable to either define himself or publicly communicate any meaningful difference between himself and Stephen Harper. That was a remarkable achievement, and one that showed why voters abandoned the Liberal party “for something more solid than the mushy middle ground.”

There is, however, no reason for liberals (small or capital “l”) to be as gloomy about all of this as Newman. The Liberal debacle in 2011 was part of a larger, natural cycle, and the gods (very small “g”) will change again.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2012.

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