a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Can Iggy be saved? Yes, (with changes)

The change of fortune for Michael Ignatieff in six months truly is a remarkable development in Canadian politics. Little over five months ago, many Canadians thought he was poised to become the next prime minister of Canada.

Today, there is speculation about how long he will keep his current job as Liberal leader while a disconnect with the voters continues to grow.

But before we get into whether the Opposition Leader can be saved as a political asset, let's look at some background.

Remember that hideous picture of Stephen Harper in leather in the summer of 2005 at the Calgary Stampede? Depending on the beholder, Harper looked either like a gay caballero or a serial killer in drag. During all the ridicule, there was a running debate about how long Harper would keep his job as opposition leader.

As we know, Harper did keep his job and went on to become Prime Minister in less than a year after reorganizing the Office of the Opposition Leader and sharpening his messages.

Most of us have forgotten about the trouble Jean Chretien had in the OLO in his first two years as Liberal leader. Chretien went through almost as many communications directors as Harper did,and the Tories were maintaining a lead in the polls. This is why Chretien went outside the party and brought in Jean Pelletier, a former mayor of Quebec, to reorganize his office.

So what Iggy is now going through is really nothing new. Most successful Opposition leaders have had to go through a crisis or two before becoming Prime Minister.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Iggy has made was not making Alex Himelfarb his chief of staff when he had the chance. The prospect of a former clerk of the Privy Council joining the OLO made Iggy's inner circle nervous. The Liberal leader chose to recruit inside the party when he should have gone outside like Chretien did.

Every successful political leader as a Cardinal Richelieu type behind the curtains providing Machiavellian advice and acting as the SOB who does the things a leader cannot afford to do.

Brian Mulroney had Derek Burney. Chretien had Pelletier. Harper has Guy Giorno. Pierre Trudeau had Jim Coutts. Having a Cardinal Richelieu figure in the background allows a leader to concentrate on connecting with the voters and doing the vision thing without having to watch his flank. Iggy has to find a Cardinal Richelieu of his own.

Recently the London Observer was wondering how Iggy could go from being one of the most articulate writers and pundits in the Western world to just another retail politician spouting the usual cautious banalities and bromides. Whether this is because of the advice he is getting or that he has yet to become comfortable in a politician's skin, Ignatieff needs to develop a foreful presence and take a few stands. He could start by mounting a spirited defence of Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer who is under siege by the government.

Reciting standard Liberal rhetoric just won't cut it. Political communications today is about substance as well as style. You need content to go with the verbal judo.

As always, I look forward to your comments on whether Iggy can be saved.

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