On the uses of absence

Michael Ignatieff’s absence from the headlines is getting noticed. Certainly (he said with a sigh) it’s unsurprising; at a dinner with friends on June 18 I counted the weeks until the Blue-Chip EI Report was to come, with its attendant Threat Level Alpha Confidence Vote Crisis, and there were 14 weeks, and I said, Boy, he probably doesn’t want to blow half that time getting ready to do something — this I said in the tone of someone who fully expected Ignatieff to do just that — and now there are nine weeks until the Major Crisis. And Colleague Feschuk and ex-Colleague Radwanski (whose new mug shot looks very good) have sent out the search parties.

But that reminds me of something. It reminds me of Stephen Harper’s first summer as leader of the Canadian Alliance, when even the non-hostile editorialists of the National Post ran an editorial complaining about his absence from the spotlight. (Our editorial ran the day after Harper showed up at a National Post Calgary Stampede party, and if it’s any consolation, Prime Minister, Ken Whyte still feels a bit sheepish about that.) On the CBC’s At Issue panel — this was a long time ago, before they got the formula right — I did a little comic riff on Harper’s absence, calling him the first narcoleptic opposition leader on record. The next time he saw me, in September, he made a point of catching my eye and pretending to nod off. This was a long time ago, when he still permitted himself to have a sense of humour.

But I digress. Anyway this was the summer of 2002, and Harper spent it reconciling the DRC rebels with the caucus they had walked out on eight months earlier, restoring fundraising mechanisms that had been battered during the Stock Day period, and other unglamorous but necessary tasks. In the summer of 2003, everybody complained that Harper was nowhere, and in fact he was negotiating the merger with the PCs. In 2004 Harper vanished after his narrow election defeat, and what a lazy so-and-so, why isn’t he on the road, and he was spearheading a rigorous post-mortem to ensure his last, losing, campaign wouldn’t be the model for his next. In 2005 he showed up only long enough to look ridiculous at the Stampede, and I had dinner with his own caucus colleagues there, and they said he was only biding his time until his inevitable fall election defeat, and in fact he was blowing up the OLO and installing a new chief of staff and rewriting the campaign platform.

So being away from cameras and scrum mikes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wasting a summer. And Stéphane Dion, who dutifully did the barbecue circuit a year ago, demonstrated that being in front of cameras and scrum mikes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the right thing.

I have no idea what Michael Ignatieff is up to. I note that Susan Delacourt reported the other day that he is demanding his staff work harder, which is the classic response of losers who have no idea what their staff does or is supposed to be doing, but perhaps that’s too harsh. I simply think it’s worth remembering that what we in the Gallery see is not the sum of a politician’s work, nor even necessarily the most important part.

Michael Ignatieff could, even as we speak, be shaking up his entourage, signing off on twin volleys of uplifting/devastating ads, wooing Wally Oppal, and otherwise putting in place the final ingredients of his electoral triumph. If it works out that way, remember you read it here first. If it doesn’t, remember you read it in Rex Murphy’s column.