The Commons: ‘I hope I make myself clear’

Michael Ignatieff spoke initially in French. He’ll have to do that from here on. His hair was freshly cut. Which will also now be of some vague importance.

He spoke seriously at first. His voice seemed deeper. Asked later about how his party might reach out to rural Canada, he harkened back to growing up “in the barns of my uncle’s dairy farm.” Asked about Alberta, he managed to speak of “destiny” and “adventure” and “drama.”

By the relatively humble standards of recent Liberal leaders, this was… good.

By the relatively mystical standards of prospectively transcendent politicians, this was… interesting.

He had obviously some intention of matching the blustery, make-believe machismo of Mr. Harper’s rhetoric.

“The choice is his,” he said of the Prime Minister. “Mr. Harper knows where he can find me.”

On the circumstances of his leadership. “I don’t take lessons in legitimacy from Stephen Harper.”

On the possibility of imminent Conservative attacks on him. “It would be very unwise.”

On who speaks for the Liberal party. “Nobody speaks for the Liberal party but me.”

On clarity. “I hope I make myself clear.”

And so on and so forth. A review of the early headlines shows this gambit to have been fairly effective.

He made the requisite pledge to lead the coalition, to vote against the Conservative government and fell the Prime Minister. But.

“The ball,” he said, “is in Mr. Harper’s court.”

Now he is the leader and now he must do as so. He must talk tough without limiting his options. He must keep open those options without seeming directionless. He must answer questions without committing to anything. He must be vague without seeming bereft of ideas. 

He arrived at the National Press Theatre this time with maybe 20 associates. Each of them no doubt of some opinion as to how he might do all of this.

The press gallery filled the seats directly in front of him. It is probably safe to assume some are willing to be impressed. It is probably safe to predict most will quickly prove impatient if he fails to justify his sudden ascension.  

He made the requisite nod to a “better” kind of politics. He denounced Mr. Harper’s approach to the economy. He pronounced his party be based on the ideas of “national unity” and “fiscal responsibility.” He was asked repeatedly about his party’s inability to succeed of late despite those unimpeachable principles.

He attempted to compare his Liberals to a plank of wood. They had been run through the Conservative buzzsaw, he said, but the wood itself was still of good, sturdy fibre. Or something.

If it is press conference poetry you seek, Ignatieff is probably your man. But he was not quite graceful this first time out. Two years ago, he spoke to the Liberal convention as though he’d just gulped down a bottle of NyQuil. Here, again, he slowed things down. He did not seem similarly drugged. But he seemed tentative at first. Perhaps that’s his instinct when faced with such challenge and pressure. Perhaps there is even something to be said for a leader who moves and thinks calmly and deliberately in the midst of chaos. But in public it borders on the unsettling.

As the proceedings continued he seemed to settle in, stopped hesitating. He started waxing eloquent about Canada and Canadiana and the dairy farms of his youth. “I like the smell,” he said.

He said his party must “be everywhere.” Just, one assumes, as he must now be everything.

Craig Oliver, a man who knew the sort of man some would like Ignatieff to be (last name: Trudeau), asked the new Liberal leader if this coalition was merely a road to 24 Sussex. “I’m not looking for a road to 24 Sussex,” Ignatieff said. “I’m looking for a road that takes us out of the crisis.”

Oliver challenged him again. Ignatieff bowed to his wisdom. And then vowed no less than “leadership equal to the crisis we are going through.”

By the relative standards of our current predicament that would be welcome.

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