The Commons: Who is this man?

Six months in, Michael Ignatieff remains a subject of some confusion

The Commons: Who is this man?The Scene. Near the end of his visit to the National Press Theatre the other day, having completed his prepared statement and having finished his response to the last of two dozen questions from the assembled reporters, Michael Ignatieff was afforded a chance to make an exit. But he was not ready to leave. He had one last answer. To a question that hadn’t been asked.

“If you’ll allow me to conclude on one note,” he said. “My stake in this is actually proving to Canadians, who are very skeptical about politics and our political system, that we can make this system work for them. That we can hold a government to account, get them to improve their performance, get good government for Canadians. That’s the big prize here actually. Make Canadians feel we got a pretty good system here and it works for Canadians and it delivers results for them. We get that, good result.”

He then turned to his right and walked away from the podium, a pensive look on his face—perhaps considering his own words, perhaps worrying that he’d said something he shouldn’t have, perhaps wondering if he’d made much sense to anyone in the room.

It is dangerous to believe what a politician says, or even to believe that he believes what he says. It is impossible, ultimately, to separate the individual from his stated purpose of persuasion and his unending pursuit of public approval. But it is tempting to believe Mr. Ignatieff genuinely believes this much. If only because, in relative terms, it sounded so odd. So out of sync with everything else, simultaneously quaint and precocious, alluring and disorienting.

In short, Michael Ignatieff remains a subject of some confusion. And in the absence of straightforward answers, his supporters and foes have rushed to simple declarations. He is a visionary. He is a snob. He is a patriot. He is an interloper. He’s a leader. He’s a wimp. He’s bold. He’s passive. He’s eloquent. He’s arrogant. He’s an intellectual. He’s aloof. He understands the world. He doesn’t understand you. He is better than Stephane Dion. He’s worse than Paul Martin. He is change. He is risk. He’s the next great prime minister. He’s better off at Harvard.

Six months into his time as leader of a hallowed political institution, it is no clearer whether the truth lies somewhere in between or beyond these limits entirely.

So far, he’s dispatched quietly with his estimable old rival, Bob Rae, and the impressive young turk, Dominic LeBlanc. He handed the party apparatus to an exuberant bald man named Rocco. He stocked his office with the smart and young and new. He struck half a dozen committees dedicated to the vague idea of renewal.

When Parliament returned from its imposed hiatus, he undid a coalition agreement that would have made him prime minister. He acquiesced instead to the government’s economic plan with reservations and a demand that Mr. Harper report regularly on his progress. “The new Liberal leader is going to face some stiff challenges as his honeymoon period winds down,” warned one columnist.

When a half dozen Liberal MPs from Newfoundland agitated over the decision, he announced for the cameras that he would give them a pass. “It could have far-reaching consequences for him, for his party, and potentially for the country,” gasped the Globe’s editorial board. Within a week everyone had forgotten it ever happened.

He insisted on using the daily ritual of Question Period to ask actual questions to which he sought actual answers. The press gallery only periodically paid attention. He smiled and lectured and glared and joked. He did not insist on subjecting himself to reporters each afternoon in the House foyer, but when he did he was generally entertaining. Seemingly daunted by the example of his predecessor, he avoided articulating his own ideas out loud. He mused once that taxes might eventually have to be raised to balance the national account and was accused of misunderstanding economics, or at least politics.

The Conservatives eventually unleashed their long-promised attacks. “The honeymoon is over,” declared a party spokesman. A vigorous response never materialized. Mr. Ignatieff’s poll numbers persisted all the same.

Then came this brief brush with crisis, a word that has now lost almost all meaning here.

The summer break beckoned, but so did a final chance to fell Mr. Harper’s government. Various advisors clamoured for an election campaign most everyone else agreed his party wasn’t prepared to run. Everyone here, save for those few who still defer to the Prime Minister’s alleged genius, believes himself a keener political strategist than everyone else and so the preemptive wagering on what he might do and what that might say about him began with some glee. “It’s a lock that if Michael Ignatieff doesn’t force an election this week, he will be pilloried as a weakling by some,” observed the endlessly reasonable Bruce Anderson, a veteran of this game. “If he does force one, his blood will be called for by those who say he is a self-absorbed opportunist.”

Mr. Ignatieff took the weekend. His options seemed clear—wimp or jerk. But on Monday morning he proposed something else entirely. All those straightforward questions he’d been asking had gone mostly unacknowledged. He wanted answers. He didn’t want an election, but admitted he would force one if necessary. He would later object when someone tried to suggest this was an ultimatum.

“I’m a reasonable person,” he said that day in the National Press Theatre.

“I’m not a stubborn person,” he added.

“I’m pragmatic,” he concluded.

In hindsight, perhaps he wasn’t saying so for our benefit, as much as his own. Maybe he was trying to reassure his own conscience, grasping at declarations of intent lest he lose himself in the drama.

He appeared next at Question Period and calmly repeated his requests, apparently confusing the prime minister and various other observers with a distinct lack of showy confrontation. He dragged himself from one television studio to the next, pleading his case to whichever camera was put in front of him. Had the NHL playoffs still been going, he might well have shown up on Coach’s Corner. And Don Cherry might well have dismissed him as a floater. After he struggled through an interview on the evening news, the At Issue panel more or less did.

He and Mr. Harper spent yesterday in meetings. They finished around eight o’clock, apparently with something of a deal. Before much of anything was clear, Mr. Ignatieff was being hailed as both a masterful winner and a grievously wounded loser.

“The one certain consequence of this bogus election standoff,” proclaimed one columnist in the morning’s paper, “would be the end of the Michael Ignatieff honeymoon.”

He met with his MPs, then emerged to speak with the herd that had amassed around the spare microphone stand set up in Centre Block’s gothic Hall of Honour. His caucus followed and arranged themselves around him. Silence fell over the visiting school groups touring nearby.

“On Monday, I said to the Prime Minister that I need some answers to some critical questions and we needed to make progress for Canadians. I said I wasn’t seeking an election, I was seeking collaboration, not confrontation,” he recapped.

“I’m pleased to say that we’ve made two substantial gains for all Canadians,” he declared.

Aside from the odd gesture for emphasis, his arms hung mostly at his sides. He spoke evenly and slowly. He explained the details, as much as there were details to explain. It was unclear to how many of his questions he’d proffered satisfactory answers.

“This is all business. This is working to get results for Canadians,” he said. “I feel that this is a good day for our country. But more importantly, it’s a good day, also, for this system of parliament. We’ve tried to make it work. And we’re going to try to make it work and get good results for Canadians.”

After he repeated himself in French, he opened the floor to questions and a dozen voices competed loudly for his attention. He pointed to the TV reporter most directly in front of him.

“Given your predecessors problems being steamrolled by Mr.Harper and the Conservatives,” the correspondent posited, “how important was it to get something and not to appear to just sort of accept and roll over?”

“Do I look steamrollered?” he smirked. “Next question.”

He took a few more, then turned on his heels and left in the direction from which he’d come. His caucus parting like the sea to let him through, clapping as he went. Reporters yelled questions at the back of his head. A hundred more might’ve been asked.

Everyone here is still groping for easy answers. Everyone here is still trying to figure this man out.

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