Michael Ignatieff’s weighty autumn

Somewhere in the office of the leader of the Opposition, I feel sure, there is a DVD of season three of The West Wing

Michael Ignatieff’s weighty autumn“I stand between you and your dinner,” Michael Ignatieff told a crowd gathered for lunch, which is sort of like dinner, at the Toronto Hilton. “And you’re going to be a little hungrier by the time I get through.”

Ah. This was the Liberal leader explaining the effect of his own presence. It’s the same Michael Ignatieff who likes to punctuate his remarks with asides like, “You know, I’m a pragmatic fellow.” He is an illuminated manuscript come to life, or at least partway. He began with this warning about the still-distant meal, whichever one it might be, because he planned to give us a “more substantive” speech than the audience might be used to.

The Liberal leader is having a substantive autumn. Several days before this he delivered a speech his factotums advertised as being about “Canada in the world: where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going.” Today his theme was the economy: “What Canada’s been through, the challenges we’re facing, and where we should be going.” You know, he’s a weighty fellow.

The challenge for Ignatieff since he moved to Toronto from Massachussetts in 2004 has been how to position himself. Is he regular folks? When I interviewed him in 2006 he was busy droppin’ his g’s from every gerund and ever-lovin’ participle. He has since decided that won’t work. Small mercies. Now he takes the long view, thinks the big thought, interposes himself between lunch crowds and their dinner with only the weight of his cogitation to hold back the tide.

Somewhere in the office of the leader of the Opposition, I feel sure, there is a DVD of season three of The West Wing. Toby Ziegler’s chess match with president Bartlett has received repeated viewings. Ziegler tells his boss how to win against a populist challenger. “You’re not ‘just folks,’ ” he says. “You’re not plain-spoken. Do not, do not, do not act like it.”

Bartlett protests: “I don’t wanna be killed.”

Ziegler: “Then make this election about smart, and not. Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds.” And Ziegler knocks down his own beleaguered king, because this guy Bartlett, he cannot be beaten at chess.

God, I love that scene.

Anyway, here was Ignatieff on the economy. He was here to be substantive. But only up to a point: those Conservatives have been fudging the numbers. When he gets elected Ignatieff will “open the books” and figure out what the budget balance really is. Only then will he come up with a financial plan. “We won’t make decisions without numbers we can trust.”

The decisions he makes, after we elect him, will form “a balanced plan,” winding down stimulus spending neither too quickly nor too slowly. “We will balance the books without making the most vulnerable pay the price,” he said. But even then, “expenditure control alone can’t dig us out of the mess Mr. Harper has left us with.”

What’s left? Michael Ignatieff’s Secret Plan to Raise Your Taxes Forever is what. Just kidding, although I suspect I’ve just foreshadowed the Conservative campaign to come. Ignatieff’s speech included a lengthy defence of the very idea of taxation, rebutting a remark Harper made to the effect that no taxes are good taxes. “It’s an astonishing statement for a prime minister to make,” Ignatieff said. “We pay taxes, Mr. Harper, so that premature infants get nursing care when they’re born. So that policemen will be there to keep our streets safe.” So if taxes are legitimate, are more taxes better? No sir or madam: a Liberal government will “keep our tax rates competitive.”

No, what’s missing, after “spending control” that won’t feel like cuts, and taxes that are good but won’t rise, is magic beans. I mean growth. Special growth. “Growth beyond recovery.” A plan to “hit the ground running—fast—once we climb out.” Special growth comes from “standing up for Canadian entrepreneurs,” “investing in the Canadian people” and “going where the growth is.” India and China? “India and China.”

There followed a bunch of shaky statistics. The Conservatives “have actually cut funding to our research councils.” No: the research councils’ budgets are larger today than when the Conservatives were elected. “Under Stephen Harper, where do you think we rank, out of 30 leading economies, in terms of labour productivity growth?” I don’t know, 26th? “Twenty-sixth. Twenty-sixth out of 30.” Sure, but the dozen or so Canadians who know what labour productivity growth is will know Ignatieff got his factoid from the Council of Canadian Academies—which points out that productivity has lagged for decades, regardless of the party in power.

Ignatieff promised “strong policies on climate change” without waiting for the Americans. “We will create a national carbon cap-and-trade system with absolute targets. In that manner, we will enter the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen with our head held high.” This establishes a timeline. If the election campaign began next week, voting day would be at the beginning of November, which would give the new Ignatieff government six weeks to design its cap-and-trade system before Copenhagen. That’s ambitious. Probably opening the Conservatives’ fudge-encrusted books and concocting an economic plan would have to come after that.

With that, the Liberal leader let the lunch crowd get down to dinner. His Bartlett campaign—engaged, qualified and heavyweight—lay ahead.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.