Signals Of Change, Do Not Always Mean Change: Martin on Ignatieff’s Kitchen Cabinet

Posted on February 5, 2009


Martin Lawrence has dubbed Igntatieff’s decision to meet with a kitchen cabinet of loyalists each morning as a blow to Putinism — that is, party rule by a leader and a tight clique of unelected advisers. He suggests, in doing this, Ignatieff is signaling a new way in Liberal Party politics. He is wrong to make this claim.

Martin must know that signals are not the same as change. He must also know that symbolism — empty symbolism — is a tool employed by cliques to maintain their rule. A meeting is very often a symbolic exercise designed to give the illusion that its participants are part of a decision that in fact has already been made. What better way to keep loyalists happy than a little meeting each morning over coffee and maybe a croissant or two. The feel like their loyalty has been rewarded by their inclusion in the special inner circle; plus, they are now that much less likely to try to leverage their loyalty at unexpected and inconvenient times. Even the timing is suspect. At 8:30, many of the key strategic decisions of the day have already been made. The clique of unelected insiders, I suspect, are feeling pretty smug right now.

In support of the view that these meeting are meaningful, Martin claims the kitchen cabinet had a big say in the decision to let NFLD MPs vote their conscience. This claim is suspect. The strategy employed on this budget is exactly the same that has been employed on many key confidence votes for the past year or so. Let some MPs vote their conscience or not show up, etc., do whatever it takes, so long as we don’t cause an election we can’t afford. So, this is hardly proof of change. In fact, I am more inclined to think it is proof that these meetings are window dressing because their existence are now being used to dress-up a decision that was made over a year ago. Although I may have the weight of history to support my claim, I will admit we won’t know for sure one way or the other for some time yet. A sample size of one is hardly conclusive and genii often stay out of the bottle once released.

Martin then veers off onto the topic of Ignatieff’s noted intellectualism, and implies the Liberals are going to bring back a degree of intellectualism to Canadian political debate. Of course, he doesn’t or can’t offer any proof of this new commitment to nuanced debate on the part of the Liberals. I have not yet seen it in Liberals communication lines. Moreover, I also know that Ignatieff’s noted intellectualism caused him to support the invasion of Iraq and some instances of torture. Intellect can serve many ends, not all of them good, or ennobling. Perhaps, the unelected inside clique have simply found an intellectual who is willing to count those angles on the head of a pin that make their case.

So, after a closer examination, it seems to me the Martin’s piece is either an expression of hope or a gross exercise in Liberal public relations. Hope is crucial to all pursuits, including politics, but it cannot be blind hope. Martin expresses a desire for an increased intellectualism in politics but party insiders will feel little need to amp up their game if political commentators blindly express hope or simply regurgitate a party’s communications line. If members of media long for greater intellectualism, perhaps, it is time they ramp up their own game. Physician heal thyself.

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