Michael Ignatieff’s unfinished business

EXCLUSIVE: "Everybody knows the future of the party is at stake"
Former leader Michael Ignatieff stands with Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and former prime minister’s John Turner and Paul Martin prior to the start of the Welcome ceremony at the party’s convention in Ottawa on Friday January 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The first thing Michael Ignatieff noticed were my sneakers: black Converse All-Stars. “You’ve got your running shoes on!” he said, ushering us into his Ottawa hotel room. In the dying days of the spring campaign, he had stumped through southwestern Ontario in a bright red pair of the same, sprinting to shore up Liberal votes in ridings the party once took for granted. We lost all but one of them on Election Day.

That was eight months ago. Today, Ignatieff is a recovering politician with unrequited dreams. “I didn’t get there,” he told delegates last night. “God knows I tried. I didn’t leave anything on the table. I gave it everything I had. But I didn’t get there.”

This morning, he spoke with Anonymous Liberal Sources about the journey.

AG: Anyone who watched last night saw you showered with affection and respect. How did that feel?

MI: It was very touching. I was a little apprehensive coming in, there’s no question about that. I didn’t know what people would feel. Two things struck me. First of all, there were an awful lot of young people in the room for whom this was their first political convention. I must have met 20, 30 young people, some students, some not students, and some not so young, for whom this was their first convention. That’s a very good sign. We’re not preaching to the converted. We’re not preaching to the choir. So that was great. And there was something in people’s eyes last night that struck me very much, a kind of hopefulness. I mean, everybody knows where we are, everybody knows we’ve got a mountain to climb, but we seem to be at the base of the mountain, ready to climb. It felt good. They were incredibly nice to me, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that this is a team that wants to win.

AG: Is that different from the way you felt before May 2nd?

MI: Well, I think now we absolutely know we have to get our act together.

AG: Are you saying there’s a greater sense of urgency now than there was before May?

MI: I think there’s a lack of complacency. I think everybody knows the future of the party is at stake. It’s not an institution whose future can be taken for granted. It has to be rebuilt, it has to be renewed—and those words, “rebuilding” and “renewal,” have content; that is, there are changes to the constitution, there are fundraising changes, there’s recruitment of new candidates.

Most of all, I think one of the great unspoken assets of the Liberal party of Canada is Stephen Harper. The country deserves better than this prime minister. We’re not in a kind of slushy middle here; this is the most conservative government the country’s probably ever seen, and we’ve got to offer Canadians something better.

AG: Doesn’t that also cut the other way, though—as the party renews, it renews in opposition to something, as opposed to in proposition of something?

MI: Oh, sure. You can’t get back to power by defining your project in negative terms. But it helps to have somebody in office who represents the opposite of what you believe. The politics of personal destruction, the politics of division, the politics of fear, it’s all there. It helps you to define the politics of moderation—the politics of democratic respect, the politics of hope—more clearly.

Last night, when Dalton McGuinty just said one sentence, “let’s build schools, not prisons”—it’s code for so much more than that. It’s a rallying cry. Everybody knows there are two ways to go here. So that’s why I’m saying Mr. Harper is an asset. It’ll help us concentrate our message, but it’ll have to be positive.

That means clean energy. That means a politics of democratic renewal within the party and in the country. And equal opportunity—I just can’t get out of my mind the number of Canadians I met who are having a tough time. The kid in a Manitoba school telling me he didn’t know if he was even going to graduate high school, because he didn’t have a place he could do homework, he wasn’t sure if the streets were safe enough for him to get home safely at night. This is our country.

We can’t afford to waste people. We can’t afford to have people think the game is over before it’s begun. We’ve got to be saying to the Canadian people: you can’t tax cut your way to a productive 21st-century economy. You can talk that talk, but it’s not going to give you a productive 21st-century economy, because it will scythe apart the public goods that make prosperity possible. That’s what we’ve got to say, and so we shall. It’s going to take a while, and we can do it.

AG: Do you feel a sense of unfinished business?

MI: Oh, sure. Enormous, enormous amounts of unfinished business.

AG: How do you convert that into your own relationship with the politics of the country?

MI: What I said last night: you’re never really out of politics. If you’re a citizen, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a writer—I wrote a piece on fairness 10 days ago, I keep writing, keep banging away. I’m very struck by what you can do in a classroom. I’ve got 200 students. You don’t do partisan politics in a classroom, that’s not appropriate. But you want to give them a strong sense that these are the issues that matter.

We’ll have a class on inequality. We’ll look at the numbers. We’ll run through. No kid graduating in a political science class in this country should not understand what’s happened to income inequality since the 1970s, period. And then, what do we do about it? It’s the biggest problem out there, in all western liberal societies. But yeah, of course there’s unfinished business.

AG: I’m reminded of your 2006 leadership platform, where there was a commitment to certain aspects of national citizenship education, which was controversial at the time. I wonder how the scholarship that’s been endowed in your name fits into that idea of education as a means of social construction.

MI: Well, I think this a great idea. There are a lot of—and people forget this about the party—there are a lot of young Canadians who want to be politically active at their college or their university who can’t go to the party convention, who can’t take part in politics, because they’re holding down a job to pay their tuition. These are kids who want to do public service, who want to get involved politically, but their financial situation is precarious. So here’s some fellowships that just toss some change on the table and say, “we’ll take care of that.” Go and take part in an election campaign. Go to that convention. Your public service matters. And we’ll pay the bill. That’s something small but concrete we can do make sure that we get more 18 year olds and 19 year olds thinking, “yeah, my education’s not just about me getting a personal qualification, it’s also about taking part, participating.”

AG: If that’s the objective, then why limit it to Young Liberals?

MI: I can imagine getting a bright young person who has progressive ideals—someone, for example, who’s very concerned about the environment—not necessarily party-affiliated, who’d make a good candidate. But it won’t be for me to decide; it’ll be for the people who administer the trust. But I think it would be great to have someone who didn’t have a party affiliation, but was clearly associated with public service of some kind.

JO: Thinking back to our time on the Hill and some of the things that people said, and the ways that people conducted themselves, it can be difficult to reconcile that what happens in Ottawa is necessarily a public service.

MI: Tell me about it.

JO: Who should we be looking for in the next generation of politicians? And if the nastiness of politics is turning people off, where do we go from here?

MI: Let’s start by saying that public service does not necessarily mean service in the House of Commons, and public service is not synonymous with partisan political activity. It comes in a thousand colours, but the common denominator is: it’s not about me—it’s about we. That’s what you’re looking for in a kid, someone who thinks, “my purposes are connected to serving someone else’s purposes, somehow.”

Now, we’re not all boy scouts. People do this for highly ambitious and personal reasons, and that’s fine. But what somebody said last night is also true of a political party—that there are all kinds of different forms of public service, but there’s no form of public service that can make more difference for more people than partisan political activity. You get into government, you can change the life chances of millions of people. So it’s not as if partisan public service and being elected as an MP is the only way to do it, but boy, it’s the way to have the biggest possible impact, no question.

But the party’s got to understand—and Mike Crawley said this last night—the party’s got to see itself as being one public service organization in a very competitive field, all of whom are competing for the allegiance and commitment and brains of the next generation. They’ve got to be big enough to reach out to those groups and say “come on in.” We have no monopoly on public service, we have no monopoly on virtue, and we have no monopoly on wisdom. If you know something more about how to get people to change their environmental practices, or improve their educational outcomes—I met with Marc [Chalifoux, a former aide] last week and we were talking with people at Ryerson who are the best in the country at getting kids to finish high school and go to college. That’s my cause. Of all the causes that I care about, that’s the one, right there.

AG: You spoke positively about the proposals for constitutional reform that are on the floor. Which of them do you think are the most important? The primaries proposal, the proposed changes to the policy process—which of these changes do you think would have a lasting impact on the party’s fortunes?

MI: I don’t want to duck that question, but I want to come back to what I said: what really matters is getting new people in. The constitutional changes matter, but the thing that the party mustn’t do is turn in on itself and think the thing we’ve got to do is fix our plumbing. The thing we’ve got to do is get new people in.

JO: There’s a lot of focus after the last election on places that we lost. But what about places where we haven’t been—

MI: Ever?

JO: Exactly. What can we do to reach out to the western Liberals and rural folks?

MI: God knows we tried, from the moment I came into politics. Inequality is not just an issue between individuals, between classes, between regions. It’s between urban and rural. One of the biggest divides in our country—I said it in 2006, and I said it right through my political career—is urban-rural. Lots of parts of this country feel entirely left behind. And they’re mobilized by, you know, the gun control issue.

What we’ve got to mobilize them with is: we don’t want any part of this country left behind. I used to give speeches on and on and on about the fact that we don’t want to have a country where you think, “my kids have got to move to the city if they’re going to have any kind of future.” We’ve been saying that, and we’ve not got through. The Conservatives hold these places because they keep bombarding rural Canada with, “Liberals are a bunch of urban, metropolitan snobs who don’t care about you and want to leave you dead by the roadside.” We’ve simply got to go out and say, “they’re lying to you about us. We actually care about you more than the other guys, and we’re not going to pander to your prejudices—we’re going to give hope to your kids.”