The Commons: The loneliness of the opposition leader -

The Commons: The loneliness of the opposition leader

Overshadowed by a busy day in Ottawa, Ignatieff is put through his paces on his 63rd birthday


The Scene. In the basement ballroom of the Crown Plaza hotel in downtown Ottawa, Michael Ignatieff was celebrating his 63rd birthday with the brothers and sisters of Canada’s building trade unions. Entering the room to the strains of BTO’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet—the brothers and sisters’ choice, not his—he smiled and shook hands as he made his way to the dais. The brother who introduced him had wished him a happy birthday and so as Mr. Ignatieff took his spot at the lectern, the Liberal leader pronounced it difficult to turn 40—a small joke before starting.

He wore a grey suit, white shirt and red tie. As he proceeded with his remarks, his eyebrows danced and his hands bounced from point to point. Except when he switched to French he seemed completely uninterested in his prepared text. He enthused about demographic transition and labour markets and skill shortages, China, India, education, training and teaching. If there was more than one member of the press gallery present they were decidedly inconspicuous.

Part of Michael Ignatieff’s plight—as multi-faceted and massive as it is—is this. When he chases the outrage of the afternoon he is noticed for his topicality, but lamented for his superficiality. But when he does anything more substantive—or at least less tawdry—he is inevitably ignored, in many cases by the same experts who wish he were more often so focused on “what matters.” The other day he gave a speech in Mississauga about debt and taxation and social spending. It seems to have escaped almost all notice, except for one columnist who found Mr. Ignatieff’s use of the adjective “affordable” to be evidence of some fatal flaw in the Liberal party.

And as he spoke this day, Parliament Hill’s attention was decidedly elsewhere. The secretary general of the United Nations was in town. The parties were in the midst of another round of Afghan detainee document negotiations. And, perhaps most importantly, the mysterious private investigator who may or may not have anything to do with the resignation and exile of Helena Guergis was testifying before a parliamentary committee. So perhaps this was a case of poor timing. Perhaps Mr. Ignatieff’s handlers should have known better than to ask the press gallery to choose between their man and Magnum.

“We’ve also got to address the simple investments we need to make as a country in learning,” Mr. Ignatieff told his audience, quite unsalaciously. “As you know, I’ve been an educator most of my life. I’ve been in and out of classrooms all my life. And one of the passions, one of the things that motivates me most deeply as a politician, as a figure in public life, is learning.”

He referred here to early childhood learning and raising the high school graduation rate of young aboriginals and ensuring they receive the proper education and training to find work. This, he said, was fundamental to addressing labour shortages in the west. He spoke of integrating immigrants, improving their communication skills. He stressed access to post-secondary education, winning applause. He promised to fund skill training centres, winning applause again. He touched on standardized rules for federal contractors and sub-contractors, pension reform, changes to bankruptcy legislation and his difference of opinion with the government on the future of corporate tax rates. He warned of future funding cuts at the hands of Mr. Harper.

He kept up a decent pace and was done within 20 minutes, then turning the floor over to questions. The brother at microphone #1 wanted to know how a Liberal government would approach nuclear procurement. The brother at microphone #2 wanted to know how the tax system might be amended to better facilitate labour mobility. Back at microphone #1, another brother wanted to know the Liberal leader’s position on raw bitumen. Mr. Ignatieff seemed to have thought at least a little about most of this before now.

Presented with a multi-part query that afforded him an opportunity to avoid several problematic topics, he opted to deal directly—perhaps dangerously, as danger is defined here—with the exportation of asbestos (he thinks Canada should get out of that business) and the balancing act of pursuing free trade with partners like Colombia and China (it’s complicated). He won applause, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, for suggesting Parliament cease the practice of omnibus legislation.

Hoping to squeeze every prospective question into his available time, he asked for five brothers to present their queries in quick succession: ending up with an omnibus question that asked him to explain a) his plans for developing young tradespeople, b) how, as prime minister, he would work with a minority parliament, c) what he makes of the current government’s plan for the economy, d) whether he would pursue legislation to bar replacement workers in the event of a strike or lockout, and e) how we should balance national security and the public interest in regards to scrutinizing documents related to this country’s handling of Afghan detainees.

“Wow, I thought I was going to have an easy afternoon,” Mr. Ignatieff laughed. “You’re putting me through my paces.”

And so Mr. Ignatieff continues to try to find his speed, and the country continues to try to figure itself out, just slightly beyond the attention of those who are paid to take notice.