Ignatieff calls for end to the politics of 'Us and Them'

By Adela Talbot
November 01, 2012

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IgnatieffPaul Mayne, File Photo


Personal attacks and political squabbling – whether heard in the House of Commons or during one of the recent U.S. presidential debates – are symptomatic of poor partisanship, the kind that deters the general public and stands in the way of democracy.

This is a significant problem, one that must be addressed sooner rather than later, said Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and senior fellow with the Department of Political Science at Massey College, University of Toronto.

Ignatieff delivers the Centre for American Studies/Canada-U.S. Institute lecture, Us and Them: Opponents and Enemies in Politics, at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 in Spencer Engineering Building (SEB), room 1059. A book-signing follows the lecture in SEB 2100.

“Democracy can be damaged when politics becomes the politics of enemies, as opposed to the politics of adversaries. This is applicable in Canada and it’s applicable in the (United) States,” Ignatieff said. “Canada and the United States are different, but let’s not play innocent here.

“The tactics of negative advertising that various parties have used have done our political system a lot of harm.”

And Ignatieff would know.

He was at the centre of what many consider one of Canada’s nastiest federal elections in 2011.

Elected his party’s leader in May 2009, Ignatieff served in the position only two years. He resigned as leader following the 2011 federal election when he not only lost his own seat, but the party’s status as the Official Opposition. In the Liberals’ worst showing in its history, the party won only 34 seats, a distant third behind the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives and Jack Layton-led NDP.

Ignatieff will speak on how bipartisan attacks and advertising tactics plague politics, particularly during election campaigns, pitting one party against another, failing the electorate, the system as a whole and accomplishing little in the end.

“We need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An enemy is someone you want to destroy and an adversary is someone you want to compete with in a fair fight. All democracies have to manage to understand that,” Ignatieff explained.

“We need to think seriously about whether in the House of Commons, party discipline is reducing the number of free votes in the house, reducing the independence of Members of Parliament. Party discipline is making it more difficult for MPs to represent their constituents fairly and adequately, more difficult to represent their own conscience, and all of that may not be good for democracy.”

Perhaps along those lines, he declined comment on current issues facing the Liberals today.

“The party is in the middle of a leadership race federally and provincially and the last thing I want to do is get into that,” he said. “It’s up to members of the party to sort that out.”

Poor voter turnout is evidence a system in which parties view one another as enemies, as opposed to adversaries, is failing. If it continues, young voters, such as Western students, will have no desire to vote or engage in politics, he added.

“Four out of five Canadians age 18 did not bother to vote in the 2008 federal election. So our political system is turning people off. I don’t want a day to happen when we hold a federal election in Canada and no one shows up. But it’s conceivable given the current trends,” Ignatieff said. “We’ve gone from an 80 per cent turn out in a federal election in 1960 to just over 60 per cent in 2011. That’s not a good number and we need to get people back in. But people get turned off by excessive negative, relentless, take-no-prisoners partisanship.

“I don’t want a politics where we treat fellow citizens as enemies.”

Centre for American Studies/Canada-U.S. Institute lecture
Michael Ignatieff
Us and Them: Enemies and Opponents in Politics
4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8
Spencer Engineering Building 1059.


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