Michael and me

July 15, 2010

An interview with Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff

As a guest on the Liberal Express I got first interview of the day.

I was rather surprised when Leeds Liberal candidate Marjory Loveys invited me for a ride from Brockville to Kingston on the Liberal Express, Michael Ignatieff’s ambitious summer march through all of the provinces and territories of Canada.

Marjory Loveys is a terrific interview because she knows politics and has a nimble mind.  I use her whenever I can for columns because they always turn out interesting.  Whatever she told the crew, they treated me with considerable deference, and maybe a little fear.

While we were waiting through the media scrum for a chance to board the bus a pleasant blonde woman beside me started to chat.  I explained that scrums were of no use to me:  I’m too deaf, so I prefer a one-on-one interview, and that this was the first time I had left home to do one.  “Normally they come to me.”  She smiled, amused, and we talked about the freedom which comes when one reaches a certain age. The kids are grown up, and one can start off on a major endeavour.

I introduced myself.  She shook my hand, “I’m Zsuzsanna.”  Ulp!  Embarrassed.  She quickly put me at ease and bade me welcome aboard the bus.  Good start:  I hadn’t recognized Ignatieff’s wife!  Sweet lady, though.  If I were a puppy I’d curl up at her feet.

The first available seat was with a young man in red t-shirt, one of the crew of interns with the Liberal headquarters in Ottawa.  He’s from a town near St. John’s, Newfoundland, majoring in economics at Western.  When the guy in charge warned me I was first up for an interview, I left my seat-mate my camera and made sure he knew how to use it.

The bus is set up with a number of seats facing tables.  All except the leader’s are loaded with cookie bags, stacks of newspapers, and surprisingly large young men in dress shirts typing steadily on laptops.  The bus has Internet.  Somebody told me the password so I logged on and dashed off emails until my time came up.

With pen and pad in hand I moved up to join the trio at the table. Marjory beamed from the other side and Ottawa-Orleans candidate David Bertschi looked pleasant, if a bit detached.  Mr. Ignatieff shook my hand and introduced himself as “Michael.”

“I’d like to begin with a question from political science, if you will.”  Michael nodded.  “It concerns the political spectrum.  In the early sixties the Liberal Party could be comfortably described as slightly left-of-centre, but does the left-right distinction apply any more when people vote their wealth, their ethnicity, their religion, even their xenophobia?  Is there a better way to distinguish between points of view?”

Silence.  The Ottawa guy’s jaw dropped.  Marjory grinned knowingly.  She’s faced my questions before. Michael collected his thoughts for several agonizing seconds, then began:

“Since the time of Mike Pearson, Liberals have been a centrist party, a party of fiscal responsibility, strong defense, pensions, Medicare, and federalism with attention to the rights of Quebec.  That was the centre. Some suggest we should move to the left or the right.  We have many ideas in common with the NDP, but we are not the NDP.  We can get it done.

“Stephen Harper pretends to be centrist, but he wants to move the political centre ten degrees to the right, and the people of Canada can’t let that happen.”

O.K., he’s just affirmed the basic assumption of Canadian politics. Nothing radical there. Time for the follow-up:

“I once wrote in a column that Michael Ignatieff is a better conservative than Stephen Harper.  What do you have to offer to the Progressive Conservative who feels queasy these days?”

He’d fouled the first one back, but Michael watched this pitch drift across the plate, then knocked it out of the park.

“My uncle was George Grant, an ardent Red Tory and Canadian nationalist.  He wrote Lament for a Nation.  I grew up in a family where Red Tories and Liberals mixed freely.  Moderate conservatives and Liberals are part of the same family.

“I don’t think Stephen Harper is a Red Tory.  The Conservative campaign playbook is lifted from the playbook of the American Republican Party.  Red Tories have always been ardent Canadian nationalists.  While his tactics come from the United States, Harper’s ideas come from those of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance.  They are no mystery.

“And there is definitely room in the Big Red Tent for Progressive Conservatives.”

I had my interview and time was running, so I closed with a general question about Leeds-Grenville Liberal candidate Marjory Loveys.

“What I like about Marjory Loveys is that she has put down roots here.  She knows Ottawa and is unimpressed and unintimidated by it.  She can get things done there.

“Marjory cares about ideas.  I have talked with her in detail about economic development in Leeds-Grenville.  We need for our young people to stay in the community.  They shouldn’t have to leave for schooling, or for jobs.  People shouldn’t have to travel away from their community for medical care.  Marjory should make an excellent MP.”

From what I could see on the bus and in the interview, Michael Ignatieff takes a traditional approach to politics.  He’s going about this tour the methodical way, stop by stop, talking with Canadians and picking up ideas and believers as he goes.  For example, Michael commented with a smile at the end of our interview: “In four years in this business nobody has ever asked me an initial question like that.”  But have you noticed how he slips “Progressive Conservative” into every speech now?

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