The Commons: Old school -

The Commons: Old school

Michael Ignatieff fills the university halls with big questions: ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s out in the cold?’


Observe the Ignatieff in its familiar habitat.

Standing on a square stage in the middle of the room, grey jacket removed and placed on back of chair. He wears black shoes, dark blue slacks, light blue shirt, sleeves rolled up. He holds the microphone in his left hand, gestures with right. Students seated on all sides, he talks broadly of economic restructuring, innovation, energy efficiency, democratic engagement, social security, China, Brazil, Africa, foreign aid, intellectual property, personal responsibility, productivity, internationalism and education. He promises to be concise, he asks everyone else to be civil. After about 15 minutes he calls for questions. A line of about 16 young people forms behind a microphone set up in the audience.

So has the Liberal leader opted to open his year with a nod to both the past and the future—a return to the university halls from which he came, standing amidst the hopeful young minds of this country’s tomorrow, prefacing a restart to his Prime Ministerial ambitions and perhaps even relaunching the Liberal Party of Canada. In the capital a week before Parliament would have opened, he stood this afternoon before a crowd of 250 at the University of Ottawa. A 20-minute walk from the House of Commons, he attempted to make sense of here, there and everywhere else beyond both.

“One of things, I think, that drives all of politics is anybody who’s in politics always asks the question, ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s not included? Who doesn’t share? Who doesn’t participate? Who doesn’t benefit from what I’ve got?’ ” he asked. “That’s the core political instinct, in my view. ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s out in the cold?’ “

He referred here to young aboriginal Canadians without a high school education, the hundreds of thousands of Canadians without sufficient literacy skills.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, bringing the people in to the promise of Canadian life,” he continued. “Because you can’t get anywhere in this society without the education, the kind of education, that you’ve got. So let’s commit, whatever party you commit to, whatever group you commit to, you’re always asking the question, ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s not sharing? Who’s not involved? Who’s not getting the benefit of Canadian life the way I am?’ That seems to me the political question of all.”

The kids in attendance had still more questions.

The first young person addressed him as “sir” and asked about the environment. A young women asked about the rationality of criminal sentencing then stepped back, crossed her arms across her chest, and listened expectantly. The third question had to do with the responsibility to protect doctrine. A smiling, nervous girl from Alberta wondered about the oil sands, then questioned whether Mr. Ignatieff would commit to “gender parity” in the questioners this afternoon. Four young men filmed the proceedings with hand-held devices.

Mr. Ignatieff didn’t so much pace the stage as wander and fidget. He outlined the basis of a vision, without committing to a specific plan. He demonstrated that necessary ability to put forth notions—doing better, being smarter, acting fairer—to which only a mad man would object.

He entertained all questions and encouraged what he could, but often met earnest hopefulness with crushing practicality. Would he enforce a moratorium on oil sands development in Alberta? No. Would he bring an end to the seal hunt and the “crushing in of baby seal skulls?” Sorry.

“The difficult thing about politics is you have to face facts,” he said at one point.

A well-prepared young lady asked if he might freeze tuition fees. “That’s a great question and you’re going to hate my answer,” he said, proceeding to explain the economics of post-secondary education and the unfeasibility of such a proposal.

“We’ve got to base public policy on science and evidence,” he ventured.

Someone suggested a national summit of young people to consider the challenge of climate change. Mr. Ignatieff said that seemed a fine idea. Another asked about meeting Lester B. Pearson’s goals for foreign aid. Mr. Ignatieff said that’d be fine, but it mattered first how that aid was being distributed and used. There was a question about something called “social entrepreneurship.” Mr. Ignatieff seemed not only to understand what this meant, but to have considered it at some length. Offered a few opportunities to do so, he spoke effusively of education as the focus if we are to be prepared for whatever is coming.

The reception was hardly fawning, rather simply appreciative. He perhaps gained something merely by being here, daring to submit himself to the questions and comments of presumably uncontrollable citizens.

If there was a question that hung unaddressed it was the one he asked himself, about who is here and who is not. In a way he did not intend, it perhaps begs to be asked of this first attempt of 2010 to rediscover the Michael Ignatieff of 2006. If he has engaged the young, or perhaps merely found his footing, what now? Who is not in this room? And how can he go about bringing them in?

No such cynical questions were asked this afternoon, these students perhaps understanding that this city is home to hundreds of people specifically employed to stew over such queries.

When it was over, a few students stepped forward to present Mr. Ignatieff with a University of Ottawa hoodie, which he dutifully tried on. It fit, the day ending then with at least one unquestionable victory.


The Commons: Old school

  1. Don't Liberals already get the university vote ?

    So this is helping him become the next PM of Canada how exactly?

    This feels more like a goodbye tour.

    • A political leader, taking unscripted questions from unscreened Canadians, feels like a goodbye tour? You could be mistaken, I suppose, because Stephen Harper said goodbye to taking actual questions from non-screened citizens many years ago.

      But if you don't see how talking to Canadians has everything to do with potentially leading them, then you have a funny idea of leadership.

      • Tell me, does pride help ease the sting of defeat ?

        Yes, of course, we all agree its admirable to talk to real Canadians. A handful of cabinet ministers have fanned out across the country to do just that in advance of the budget.

        My point is that in terms of winning elections he's talking to voters he should already have. He needs to be talking to voters he DOESN'T have yet.

        Goodbye tour or confidence booster. Not serious politics though.

        • Two things.

          First, I believe very few students actually vote, so going there and engaging them is more likely to get them to actually vote.

          Second, this is being covered by the media, no? His message gets out to more people than those who are in attendance.

          • Trying to get new people involved in the process is good if you're Barack Obama. If you're Iggy not so much.

            On the second point the only coverage this is getting is local newspapers. Doing a townhall open to everyone would be just as effective and more likely to involve relevent questions and potential swing voters.

            An open townhall is a lot more risky though, then a students only chit chat.

            Perhaps this is just about stabalizing the LIberal's horrid poll numbers. Keep things at 30, play at the year without an election, and try again in 2011.

          • Getting coverage in local papers is a good thing.

        • A) Not everything a politician does should be about winning elections. That's a very cynical way to look at things.

          B) He's talking to many people in different forums. Writing off any one group, ie. students, would be silly. And if you want to look at it politically, getting them involved for a change could be quite powerful.

          C) Speaking of confidence, the overconfidence of Conservative supporters these days is really quite telling. Win two minority governments and all of a sudden they're the greatest political geniuses in history, destined to govern forever.

          Pride cometh before the fall.

      • Having obnly been back in Canada for 5 years,
        yah, talking to Canadians is a good idea.
        But perhaps talking to Canadians with a little age and experience on them, would be a better,
        if he wants to learn something about Canada.

        • I'll wager he knows Canada better than you. He at least seems to think from time to time.

    • I think it's dry run for the townhalls next week and through the campaign. They're going to copy the Obama campaign model — speech, followed by a townhall, then a scrum.

      Harper will follow the Bush model. Speech. Press. Rest.

      Of course, Bush won all of his elections, barely, but still won. History will judge him probably as America's worst president, but he'll always be remembered as a winner.

    • I found this article very refreshing. Thank heaven a politician is getting out and talking to one of the most important groups in the country – Canadian leaders of the future. Maybe if this were done more, students would vote more, instead of being cynical and flippant about the political process. if nothing wlse, they can influence their parents. The writer’s point is that Ignatieff’s town hall was appreciated. People want to and should be listened to – and how else do you do it effectively, except through personal contact? We’ve had enough of Conservatives counting on ignorance and apathy to push their top down agenda, ignoring the democratic institutions Canidians fought for in two world wars. Thanks, Mr. Ignatieff, for another way of connecting with Canadians. (And i’m glad to see your numbers are up and climbing).

  2. "The difficult thing about politics is you have to face facts"

    If only all liberals understood this, we would be better off as country. Libs are not very popular because few others share their pie in the sky beliefs.

    "The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it." PJ O'Rourke

    Always think of O'Rourke's comment when I read Lib notions that no one objects too.

    You couldn't pay me enough to take questions from earnest university students. No one cares what they think because they don't vote and most of them are stuck on stupid when it comes to policy ideas.

    • My word, have you ever become bitter of late.

    • That is funny.

      Here are some facts: our crime rate is decreasing, people are safer, and increasing penalties is only going to cost us more without having any effect on the crime rate.

      The GST cut was very popular, but was widely criticized by just about every economist out there as being poor policy. We are now feeling the effects of that decrease in revenue, as our debt grows ever higher.

      But these little pie in the sky policies help Harper win elections, and at the end of the day, that is all he cares about.

      And your last comment – truly the funniest. Education is bad!

      • I'm guessing jolyon was thinking along the lines of:

        “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” – Winston Churchill

        • I am puzzled by the need for some of you to resort to quotes as though they were facts.

        • you are mind reader, exactly what I was thinking.

          • OK. Well that deals with the last line. Now about the rest???

      • their strategy seems to be to pander to public fear of crime, rather than the facts of crime.

    • And people say conservative (and Conservative) government and many of their supporters prefer fear over facts. Security over liberty. Suspicion over trust…

  3. Who are you guys kidding, not all university students vote Liberal.

    • Those that don't are idealists who will never change their NDP or Green affiliation.

      It takes years to grow out of socialism/environmentalism.

      • The current Minister of State responsible for "democratic reform" began his political career as president of the University of Manitoba Students Union. I believe he was already "out" as a Con at the time and still managed to win a student election.

      • The problem with university students is that they haven't been trained to respond to your values and interests in a positive way.

        Those damned sheeple are discovering and thinking for themselves. It must be stopped!

        • You really don't think there is ANY indoctrination or influence from left wing profs ?

          Its well known that if you factor out hard sciences, medicine, and engineering profs the rest of the faculty tends to lean well to the left side of the spectrum.

          • It's well known by who, exactly?

            It has been well alleged that universities are these left-wing producing factories of indoctrination, but there has never been anything to back it up.

            Are most profs left leaning? Yes. Indoctrination? How simply foolish…

            My experience has been that most are don't teach from their perspective, however. Just because of the right wing movement towards anti-intellectualism, one cannot assume that there is a corresponding anti-right wing movement (which definitely has not been my experience).

            Anti-intellectual societies are remembered unfavourably and usually have little to offer…

      • Oh, is that why Conservative student associations have been growing in popularity? I thought it was because they advocated for things like Senate and Electoral reform, tougher crime sentences, lower taxes, and decentralization.

        And offered free buttons at campus events. Everyone likes free buttons.

      • So, are there no Young Conservatives?

        Or are there some, but they wouldn't attend university? Actually, I happen to know at least one, university schooled young conservative. Or maybe he just tells his dad that, donates to make it look good, works on websites and other volunteer things–then votes Liberal when the time comes.

        Or maybe he will now that he's seen the contempt levelled at him and people like him by the rest of his party.

    • In fact read this….
      It's clear the Conservatives have been trying to change their fortunes on campus for a while………

  4. "The reception was hardly fawning, rather simply appreciative."

    Oh brother. Unlike this blogpost, you mean?

    • Go back to fawning over captain anti-parliament, conbot. There's an angry bitter support group with a chair for you somewhere…

  5. Is it just me, or does "gender parity" in questioning seem kind of excessive/ridiculous? I saw them trying to do it at the NDP conference in Halifax, as well. I wonder how Iggy replied.

    • Quotas for people classified in groups are a Band-Aid solution at best. In something like a questioners' list, "gender parity" implies that all women will draw questions from one set of possible questions and all men will draw their questions from another set of possible questions, and gender parity will make certain both sets of questions are posed. The underlying assumption is highly questionable.

    • He would reply by being for it most of the time, but then on the other hand, against it some of the time.
      That's how he got his name, Iffy.

      • No one calls him Iffy except the idiots who call the Liberals Libranos or Canada Canuckistan. It's stupid, puerile and boring.

        • I'll second that. If Wilson ever says anything original or even interesting may just implode.

          • I think we're safe then.

  6. Can Iggy make the jump from bromides and platitudes to a relevant, focused and comprehensive political program?

    It's not apparent from this exchange. Where to the Liberals want to take us?

    They've had four years to think about it and tell us. The only meaningful policy idea was the Green Shift. Taxing carbon in one of the most carbon dependent economies in the world: Canada, because of it's cold climate and great distances. A dubious proposition rendered even more dubious by the so-called "settled "scientific predicition of runaway man-made global warming. (By definition a prediction can't be settled, but I digress.)
    The carbon tax idea was Iggy's by the way.

    We've heard squat from the Liberals policy-wise before or since the Green Shift.

    • Funny. We're just waiting for your so-called leader to twist his own arm while providing us with another 'halloween' moment and his own green shift solution. A tax on everything with loopholes for big oil. But a tax credit for tinfoil. Now that's something Jarhead can get behind.

    • Ignoring the numerous other flaws in this statement, I'll take issue with this one – "one of the most carbon dependent economies in the world: Canada, because of it's cold climate and great distances", as it implies that our high per capita carbon emissions are entirely due to the size and nature of our country… it's not.

      Take the counterexample of Norway – it, like Canada, is a major oil producer, is quite cold (colder than Canada) and has a relatively sparse population concentrated in major cities near the south. It is heavily industrialized, with a per capita GDP over 30% higher than our's. It's per capita carbon emissions are half what our's are. The cold climate and demographics matter, but not so much that they should double those of a country who has to deal with much the same problems.

      • Their national debt/GDP ratio is also quadruple what ours is.

        • Only external debt, which isn't the greatest measure of fiscal stability – Norway is a small country that's heavily integrated into the larger European economy. Virtually every European nation has an external debt level that high, or higher. That's an indication of economic size relative to all major trading partners, not necessarily a measure a poor economy.

          Contrast this against what does have an impact on fiscal health, public debt. Norway's is 52%, Canada's is 62%.

          And wait – why would this have any impact on the feasibility of emission reductions? Squabbling over a few debt numbers is virtually meaningless, both countries are wealthy and stable.

    • I suppose you won't be voting for Harper next time 'round, since he refused to rule out a carbon tax.

    • Speaking of "having four years to think about it" remind us why parliament is prorogued at the moment?

      Will the extra few weeks leave time for the Conservatives to actually come up with a direction for Canada, or are they going to be stuck for another four years on their agenda for a majority, acting like the Oppostion, coming up with problems but no solutions?

    • Jarrid, I have a question for you. If we assume that society and international obligations require us to do *something* to lessen carbon emissions (and I think we can) we have two choices.

      Either you tax individuals/entities at the consumption phase, or you tax companies/entities at the production phase.

      Here's what I don't understand. The Conservatives have chosen option number two–cap and trade. Now, I realize they did it to mesh with whatever the Americans do, and that may be an overriding concern–but I don't see it. So, that hits the oilsands the hardest. Now, how does this make sense for the Conservative base? Complaining about how the ROC benefits from Alberta oil then wanting Alberta oil to pay the big environmental price? It wasn't the Liberals idea . . .

  7. "We've got to base public policy on science and evidence"

    Most important point coming out of this Q&A, perhaps all of them.

    • Agreed, that would rule out taking any precipituous actions to combat the so-called AGW theory.

      • Hey, what happened to that subset of AGW skeptics that a few weeks ago were all up in arms about how Saskatchewan being cold in the winter was proof Copenhagen was a global communist conspiracy? Have the talking points changed that much, or has something happened to them? It's January, and there's a lot of thin ice warnings due to the warm weather. I'm worried some of them may have fallen through. At first I thought the AGW brownshirts might have buried them in snowbanks, but most of those have melted.

        Michael Ignatief: Not a proroguer.

  8. Speaking of 4 years,
    Saturday, Jan 23 is the 4th anniversary of the
    election of the Harper Govt.

    • It was also the day 17 people went on trial to kick-start Stalin's 'Great Purge.'

      Which is also the felling that comes over me when I read another wilnut so-called leader exaltation post…

      • 'Speaking of 4 years,
        Saturday, Jan 23 is the 4th anniversary of the
        election of the Harper Govt"


        Why does it feel like 40?

    • Shame they won't be marking it in Parliament.

      Thousands will be marking the date on Parliament Hill, however. And dozens of other places across the country and throughout the world.

    • Any chance of an agenda related to actually governing instead of the 100 years election campaign?

    • So now they've had a full four years, and have only managed to fulfill one of their original 5 priorities.

      Transparancy and Accountability? Proroguing parliament to refuse committees have access to documents seems to blow that one out of the water.
      Cracking down on crime? They might have even reached that, if they didn't kill parliament every time their bill got close.. it's like they don't actually want to do it.. just say that they want to do it.
      Health Care Wait Times Guarantee? Oneof the less egregious examples.. this is just a promise where they haven't made any progress at all.. not actively worked against getting it done.

    • amazing what they have accomplished in such a short time .

  9. " can't get anywhere in this society without (university) education.."

    I think the millions of "nobodys" without a university education might take offence at such a statement. This clown is preaching to the choir.

    • Don't be ridiculous…many of those 'nobodies' [ i'm one of them] are doing their level best to see their kids to get a good education. If you're meaning to say there's no shame in a trade or some vocation that doesn't need a higher education, than say so, and stop with the cheap shots.

    • Well, strictly speaking, that's not a true statement. There are a few examples of people who've gone on to do great things without a university education.

      But they're very few and far between.

  10. With just a quick glance at this, i''d say there may be light at the end of the tunnel for MI as a future PM – or just a good parliamentarian. He seems to have learnt the art of saying no, and not promising the earth. Next…how to evade questions he doesn't like.

    • You want more of the same old, don't you?

      Michael Ignatieff, nothing new. Just waiting in line to take his turn?

      I want more!

      • There is that too! But he insists on taking is own sweet time about it.

  11. I don't think he said "education is bad".

    I think it was a commentary on the bizzare ideologies that university students engage in.

    You'd never see Marxism in the real world.

  12. A number of years ago, before MI was parachuted into politics, I had the pleasure of listening in on one of his lectures. Needless to say, I found him condescending and preachy – much like any professor who knew he knew more than his students, and was happy to prove it.

    As I watch the youtubed portions of these Townhalls and read the portions transcribed, I'm gaining a new respect for the guy – the preachiness has been toned down, and it seems that, at the very least, he's willing to listen to honest questions, and respond with the answers he can give – even if he's sure his audience may not like them.

    Perhaps not a sign of the best PM there ever would be, but certainly of someone who is growing into his role as a parliamentarian elected to listen to and respond to the will of the people.

    • I agree…but I have a concern.

      This was a speaking tour to address university students and I would have expected him to enunciate some sort of education policy.

      Perhaps he did and the media just aren't reporting it.

    • I agree.

  13. I saw Iggy in Calgary, and to be honest. I wasn't all too impressed. He was good, to be sure, but I don't think he won any number of hearts and minds. But, when he was asked a very direct question on whether he would "consider cap-trade, carbon tax or carbon tariff or other regulatory framework, and if so, would he revisit the equalization payment structure?"
    Instead of answering the question directly, he mused about investment, global trade, green energy and R&D.

    Mind you, aside from that one question, the crowd didn't really give any good questions necessitating a concrete answer. So you can't fault him for not having that opportunity.

  14. In fairness, that's a hell of a complex question if you actually want to come up with an answer that's good for all of Canada. I mean, to answer it you not only need to know if you'll put in a regulatory framework, but also what type specifically, before you can even move on to considering revisiting the equalization payment structure, and to figure out if you need to do that, you need to get a helluva lot of data to try to predict what the results would be.

    • "Well, that's certainly an option, but I honestly don't know that right now"

      …would have sufficed.

  15. Good point. Having not heard the question or the answer personally, I wouldn't be able to add other than supposition as to his reasoning, but it's certainly a possibility he was just trying to dodge the questtion. I'd hope not, because frankly I've seen enough of that kind of behavior from our representatives for a long time.

  16. A sophomoric report on a sophomoric occasion in this frequently sophomoric nation.

    • stay away

  17. This story is very interesting and subtle and makes me like MI as much as a human being as much as it does reinforce my feeling that he'll never succeed in politics. Too earnest and too honest!! Thwim, your statement on `great things' coming from university is true but I would posit that this betrays one of MI's weaknesses – well-intentioned statements that come across as snobbery and backfire. MI doesn't need to reach the people who want to do great things (though it is an understandable way to flatter a university audience) .. he needs to reach the struggling masses who just want to do OK things and enjoy life and support their families., and didn't necessarily go to university That's a lot of the swing vote, and Harper has been most clever in appealing to them.

    • Wow, thanks for reassuring me that my cynicism has not reached an all time high, in spite of years of creeping up there.

      So basically, you suggest that we elect people we don't like, the dishonest ones, the ones who reach only as high as their arm kept straight by their side. Because we are stupid and after all, we get the government we deserve.

      My God I hope you are wrong.

  18. No one could be worse than Harper

    • Oh, come now.. that's a bit of an exaggeration.

      Why, I can think of a few people right here on the Maclean's forums who could be worse than Harper.

      • yes but then your standards must be extremely low

  19. Completely boring, which is what we
    might expect. Michael is living in a
    dream world.

  20. Unfortunately, though Ignatieff has enough brains and enough talent to very adequately run the country, he lacks personal charisma … ditto Stephane Dion. We need another charmer like Pierre Trudeau … an intellectual with so much charisma no one could beat him.
    Stodgy Steven Harper has more believability somehow than our current Liberal leader. So get a new Liberal leader.
    Another Trudeau, perhaps?