Michael Ignatieff seems perpetually balanced on a tightrope. Between nuance and equivocation, passion and partisanship, principle and prudence, he appears forever cautious, contemplative, critical – perhaps to a fault.
And yet, the care with which the former academic and journalist seems to approach politics does not appear to carry the signature of his handlers, those notorious communications experts synonymous with modern politics, hidden behind the scenes ready to repackage every gesture and word. On the contrary. When one meets Ignatieff or has the opportunity to see him speak, one is struck first and foremost by the man’s authenticity, by a disarming sense of his decency. He is self-critical to a flaw, self-deprecating in his humour and nearly obsessive in his desire to be fair and accurate in choosing his words.
The Liberal leader fielded a wide range of questions from a large audience on the seventh floor lounge at Concordia Jan. 12 for a town-hall style session as part of his cross-Canada campus tour. At ease among the crowd, Ignatieff offered thoughtful and honest replies to most questions, respectfully disagreeing with students at times. Asked to disavow the seal hunt, he refused to do so, citing his Labrador MP whose family has been engaging in the “sustainable” cull for millennia. For the most part Ignatieff consciously avoided overly partisan language, and repeatedly stressed the need to get students of all political stripes more engaged in public affairs.
And here we see him walk the line again. Asked why Canada shouldn’t withdraw from Afghanistan immediately, Ignatieff replied that Canada has made a promise to the Afghan people and the international community, and that as a “serious country,” Canada must keep its word. Yet when drilled by a student how he then reconciles this assertion with our broken promises on Kyoto, Ignatieff failed to respond. Were Ignatieff serious about doing politics differently, were he truly as non-partisan as he aspires to be, voters would be able to expect a more adult and candid discussion of the Liberal party’s past failures.
Were he as serious as he claims Canada is, he would grasp that the moment voters get treated like children &- the moment we are fed doublespeak and political marketing in the place of respectful, frank dialogue &- is precisely the moment we start to tune out.
Similarly, when asked about Harper’s latest justification for proroguing Parliament, Ignatieff rightfully ridiculed the Prime Minister for suggesting a sitting Parliament creates market “instability.” And yet, when asked what changes Ignatieff would make to ensure such abuses don’t reoccur, the Liberal leader declined to do so, saying only that such reforms would have to be thought through.
And so it goes. Invited to go a mile, Ignatieff settles for going an inch. An inch further than Harper no doubt, but an inch nonetheless. Accordingly, Ignatieff’s failure to connect convincingly with Canadians thus far speaks to his inability to paint a coherent portrait of what an Ignatieff alternative would resemble. Put otherwise, he lacks a narrative: who is Ignatieff? What drives him? Why does he want to be Prime Minister? For all of hapless Stephane Dion’s flaws, at least we never lost sight of what he stood for, what he wanted for his country, or who he was. Ignatieff seems to have allowed his prudence and affinity for nuance to undermine the clarity of his message
Let’s be clear. The last thing I am promoting is a return to rhetoric over substance, or to distilling all issues into black and white – to better to fit into a 30-second attack ad. Leave that to Harperites. Nor do we require a fully detailed platform outlining a future Liberal government agenda. That’s what elections are for. But how then are we to draw this line?
Surely, there must be a place for sophistication in our national debates, for detail, for nuance. But for a leader of the opposition, it is crucial for us as voters to first and foremost grasp the enabling principles behind such nuance, the ideals which animate them &- in short, where he or she is coming from, and where they can be expected to take us. Barack Obama was certainly not afraid of sophisticated debate, nor of delving into grey areas when such issues arose. But he also knew how to point the way with words; voters were roused by the genuineness and conviction behind them.
Yes, when asked about climate change, Ignatieff should talk about investing in green energy, about cleaning up the tar sands, about an energy efficiency strategy. But this is not enough. He must also talk about the why &- tell us about the threat posed to future generations by our current inaction. Tell us about the need to reconcile human development with environmental imperatives. Tell us about the green revolution, and most importantly, tell us why you care.
If he does not, then why should we trust that he cares at all?