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April 06, 2006

Q&A with Liberal leadership contender Michael Ignatieff

'Expectations worry me most. They produce disillusion. "You played with our dreams, you played with our hopes and you let us down."'

PETER C. NEWMAN

"Cool" best describes Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leadership contender creating all that buzz. Cool is an elusive essence but it sums up the lanky ex-Harvard professor's surprising emergence as the candidate to beat in the Liberal party's desperate quest to renew itself. Cool is an aesthetic of comportment, demeanour, appearance and style. None of these qualities in isolation explain his appeal. But Ignatieff's competitors -- seasoned contenders pursuing understandable ambitions -- are increasingly puzzled by reports that when he enters a room, the political temperature changes. That may describe a state of grace, but it's also a combustible quality that raises unreasonable expectations, which of course, is Ignatieff's biggest problem. He plans to officially declare his candidacy this week. His recent speech at the University of Ottawa was its opening salvo, and his aim was true: the buzz has multiplied since he delivered it.

The day before that appearance, I dropped into his nondescript riding office in Etobicoke, a lakeside constituency in Toronto's southwestern burbs. The temperature didn't change but he was as compelling a presence as I expected. What stood out was his Cary-Grant-vintage elegance and his deep-set eyes that wince with concentration, even when answering the queries of an itinerant journalist. His face is unlined by what Balzac called "private defeats," but the set jaw signals an inner strength of will unusual for an intellectual. Ignatieff's dozen books expose but seldom preach. He is one of those rare action-oriented academics who achieve results not by imposing his views, but by encouraging people to find their own way to his beliefs.

As we left his office, I asked Maclean's Chief Photographer Peter Bregg, who had accompanied me, what he thought of the Cool Contender. "Nice change," he said. "Good to meet somebody whose heart is attached to his brain."

Looking back on your career I find that you have always exercised the ultimate civil liberty, which is to be yourself. At the moment you're a bit of a heretical presence in Grit heaven, and I wonder how you can fit your unique background into the party's collective mentality.
The people who supported me when I ran for public office supported me because I was what I was, and they're not going to continue to support me unless I continue to be what I am, to the best of my ability. Political life puts tremendous pressures on you, and I'm struggling like every other politician.

The goals of an intellectual -- the search for truth -- and of a political leader -- the quest for power -- seem incompatible. How do you plan to bridge that gap?
What I learned running for political office is that my fellow citizens want truth, they want the straight goods. They don't want you to come to the door with a policy proposal that's half-baked, or just consists of sound bites. Example: public safety in Toronto, the great concern about gun crime. What I learned from my constituents is they want a serious strategy to reduce criminal violence in our streets, and a serious strategy involves tougher penalties for gun crime, yes, but it also involves improving our networks of social protection, it involves giving opportunity to young people. It's a whole, wide package. And unless you come to Canadians with a program on public safety that respects their intelligence, you're not going to get anywhere. There is a tension between truth and power, but I just passionately believe you can't hold power for very long unless you tell the truth. So that's my sense of it.

You may have to retreat to defending the ring of truth...
Nah, we need more than the ring, we need the real deal.

Somebody said that the Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not, but you went beyond friendship in the New York Times when you wrote, "We don't seek an empire, our nation is committed to freedom...," and so on. You were writing as an American.
I shouldn't have used the "we." I'm not and have never been and will never be an American citizen, so I shouldn't have done that. Sometimes you want to increase your influence over your audience by appropriating their voice, but it was a mistake. Every single one of the students from 85 countries who took my courses at Harvard knew one thing about me: I was that funny Canadian.

This country needs a touch of political sorcery, or at least alchemy. How can you operate in that realm without becoming the victim of raised expectations?
Being elected a democratic politician is very humbling, in fact, because you trade in hope, you trade in dreams, people come to you because they think that you can change their lives, from getting their families reunited, from India to Toronto, to much bigger things like revision of the whole country. You come into democratic politics and you immediately take on a great burden of expectation. It's the thing that worries me most about political life, in fact, because the expectations can't be met, and they produce that violent disillusion that I quite understand, "You played with our dreams, you played with our hopes, and you let us down," and every politician in any leadership position can ride the roller coaster of hope up, and then will ride it down as people discover you can't deliver. I'd like to be a politician, the public figure who promised little and delivered what he promised, to the degree I possibly can -- not 25 priorities but three -- and try to be someone at the end of this game about whom you could say, "Well, I don't like that guy very much, but he did what he said." Doing that is much more important than just for my own personal reputation. Every politician who goes into public life is basically in the business of defending and enhancing the legitimacy of the democratic system itself.

The 20th century was a century of nation-states, the 21st will be a century of city-states. Where will that leave Canada? We don't have that many city-states.
We have some. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, are pretty substantial poles of growth and dynamism. The problem is that we have a constitution created in the 19th century that doesn't properly recognize the crucial role of cities and continues to hold them in constitutional tutelage to provincial governments, and that means something of direct importance to citizens. Cities lack the resources and political autonomy to be responsible stewards of their own infrastructure. We absolutely need to bring cities into the constitutional settlement of our country as equal orders of government, with the tax capacity, the power of self-determination, to run these places effectively. There's an almost equally bitter feeling of alienation and loss in rural Canada, the sense that our small communities are dying. The place where my family is buried, in Richmond, Quebec -- a small town in the Eastern Townships -- is just not what it was 30, 40 years ago. We don't think of the national unity of our country in rural/urban terms, but it's an increasing dynamic, and it's a very urgent problem for the Liberal Party of Canada. We've gone downtown for the votes, and we've got very little to say to rural Canada, and I don't think we can be the national institution we should be unless we speak both for the city but also for small-town rural Canada, which every Canadian still feels remains a heartland of our people.

One of your former students is the current leader of the Parti Québécois . . .
André Boisclair was not a student of mine but he was at Harvard in one of the years I was there, and when he graduated I was happy to shake his hand, as I shook the hands of many students. We have an ironic and amusing relationship. I have respect for Monsieur Boisclair, but he himself says, "Nous avons pris d'engagement politique different." It matters to me a lot in politics to disagree fundamentally with someone -- as I do with Boisclair -- and also to maintain appropriate civil relations with him. I don't like diabolization in personal life or in politics. The reality about politics is that it is the arena where human disagreement is worked out. Disagreement does not have to be personal, it does not have to be winner-takes-all.

Didn't you work for Pierre Elliott Trudeau at one time?
Yes, I did, in '68. I worked for Mike Pearson, knocked on doors in York South riding in 1965 as a high school student. I ran a zone house in the '65 election. I thought I was a big shot. I was a Trudeau delegate in the '68 convention that chose him, and then worked as a national youth organizer in the party that summer when we won that great majority. So I watched a young politician, pretty inexperienced, become a leader in front of my eyes.

This time, you will be compared to Lucky Pierre . . .
No, you mustn't make comparisons. It's extremely important to say there was one Trudeau, there will not be another. My model in politics is not Mr. Trudeau, much as I admired him, my model is Wilfrid Laurier, le père fondateur de notre parti. The one message you have to hear from me is that this is going to be very tough. I don't rate my chances especially highly, I haven't gone into this with a sense that it's all the way up to the top, absolutely not. It's a multi-ballot, multi-entrant field in which a lot of stuff can happen and that you can't control. You make one mistake and you're toast. I don't think I'm necessarily going anywhere, and that's the honest to God truth. I'm going to give it a shot.

The Liberal party's success has been based on policies that fall somewhere between elitism and egalitarianism, a form of sedate populism with an extended shelf life. Is that your vision of Liberalism?
Liberals have tried to make that balance, but one of the challenges for the future is to sustain the egalitarian promise of Liberalism in the face of our competitive challenge in the global economy, because the entire Canadian social model -- health care, pensions, income security -- depends critically on having an economy that is world-class, and we're slipping. We risk slipping down the lead table and being unable to sustain either the Canadian social model or the employment of our people. And I don't want to lead a country in sedate decline, I want to lead a country that is dynamic and growing.

Politics in Canada has always been the art of making the necessary possible, but it must include a creative urge to heal. Do you feel that you are a consensual politician?
I don't know whether the country needs healing, but the party -- this party I love -- sure does. We've fought each other much too much. We can't lead the country, or aspire to lead the country, unless we heal, unless we unite, unless we decide that our tribal warfare is over, truly over. I'm a person who listens very carefully; I'm a person who learns; I'm a person who believes that in politics you have to have the courage to have a party in which people can disagree civilly with each other. So the balance is not so much healing in the sense of throwing a kind of blanket over everybody, it's creating a space within the party, and then within the country, in which we can explore our differences peacefully and civilly. Healing is the wrong word. It's the peaceful management of discord that seems to be the art of politics.

I wrote recently that even when cabinet ministers admit they've lied, nobody believes them. That's how cynical Canadians have become, not just about politics but about the democratic system itself.
Canadians are skeptical about politicians on the one hand, but tremendously hungry for honest, courageous, truthful ones. I felt in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, when I ran for public office, that there were some people who threw you off the porch steps as a rogue and a thief like all the others, but there were others -- and more of them -- who want someone who is unafraid to say, "I don't have all the answers," who's unafraid to listen, who's unafraid to hear the bad news, and has a strong ethic of public service, and doesn't want to give them easy answers and false consolation. The most fatal mistake in Canadian politics is to underestimate the intelligence and the civic pride of the average Canadian voter.

I would argue that Stephen Harper has tried to claim the political centre, not as his new belief system, but as a tactic. Does the centre reflect your values as opposed to your strategy?
The vision or the idea of Canada that I see in Mr. Harper is of a re-provincialized Canada, a Canada that slowly forgoes the duty to equalize between regions and equalize between Canadians -- a vision of Canada which turns its back on the positive role of government in sustaining infrastructure, building equality of opportunity. Mr. Harper's crucial weakness is that he doesn't understand the deep longing of Canadians to feel a common spine of citizenship, a common spine of rights and allegiances, duties that provide roughly comparable standards of service right across the country. He speaks for a Canada in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It's a much more inegalitarian version of the country than most Canadians are comfortable with. What I don't want to do is try and scare the country with Mr. Harper. I respect him deeply as a political strategist. He's brought his party together, he's achieved a great success in Quebec. You can't beat an enemy you don't respect, and I respect him, but I disagree with him respectfully on this issue of what Canada is.

Does that mean you want Ottawa to retain and expand its powers?
No. Don't mark me down as a Trudeau centralizer. The history of our country, as you know, shows that provincial governments have been tremendous sources of political innovation in Canada. You just have to think of Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan, but also so many of the social programs that we like in Canada across the board began their life in Quebec, la garderie -- child care -- for one. So, I'm a strong believer in federalism as a laboratory of social innovation and political innovation at the provincial level. I don't want a strong Ottawa. I want a strong federation tied together by a common spine of citizenship, and common agreement among provinces as to what are the basic standards that all Canadians should take for granted as an entitlement of being Canadian. That's my vision.

You're the only politician I've met who talks in sentences instead of sound bites. Will this be a major handicap?
It could be fatal, Peter!

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