Maclean’s Interview: Michael Ignatieff - Macleans.ca

Maclean’s Interview: Michael Ignatieff

Ignatieff talks to Kenneth Whyte about how he got to be Liberal leader, the economy, torture, and Machiavelli

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Michael Ignatieff

Q: You had a long and successful career as an academic and a public intellectual, you’ve written many books, and you’ve won awards for them. What part of that life do you remember most fondly?

A: Being in the classroom. I come from a long line of teachers: my grandfather was a teacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher—it must be in the genes.

Q: What’s good about teaching?

A: Well, some of it’s being a ham, some of it’s the show. Some of it’s being put under pressure by extremely able, smart young people at Harvard, who just don’t let you take the easy road, and you were testing yourself against people from 85 countries, including lots of Canadians, who were terrific.

Q: You were out of Canada a long time. At some point, in the ’90s, I think, you were invited back, and you said that “you can’t go home again,” and you said another time that the only thing you missed about Canada was Algonquin Park. You seemed distant from the country, emotionally and intellectually. So what changed?

A: I don’t see my story that way at all. You know, I wrote, I made films about Canada. Blood and Belonging was essentially about that.

Q: You did refer to yourself in Blood and Belonging as an alien looking at Canada, an outsider.

A: Well, but a funny kind of alien who’d always been a Canadian. I didn’t feel offshore at all, I felt deeply involved in the country through my adult life, and I don’t think I would have come back at all now, had I not felt this ongoing sense that this is the only place where you can be a participant in public life. I think people have to appreciate how frustrating it became and how lonesome it became, in a curious way, to be always a spectator of other people’s politics and other people’s dramas. No matter how long I lived in Britain or the United States I’d never be a citizen there; I’d never be actively involved. And I also felt, as a Canadian, that I often didn’t understand debates in Britain or the United States. We have a multicultural society in Canada based on the fact that we’re all immigrants. The debates in England, I’d think, “Where are these people coming from? Why don’t they understand what we in Canada understand about multicultural societies?” There’d be moments in the United States when I’d feel, “Why are they banning stem cell research? How is this great republic engaged in policies which just wouldn’t get to first base in Canada?”

Q: But there must be policies that have been formulated and advanced in Canada that you don’t agree with.

A: Oh, sure. Sure, but they’re mine. It’s my country. I can bitch about them because it’s mine.

Q: You’ve been back about three years. What’s surprised you most about Canada now that you’re living here full-time?

A: It’s certainly renewed my patriotism, and I’ve got a book coming out called True Patriot Love, which is no accident. I think the single biggest surprise is the sense of a great country underperforming. I’m a patriot, but an impatient patriot. We’re heavily regionalized; the ties that bind us are weaker than I think they should be. You want to use the authority of the federal government, not to run everything from Ottawa, but to get us a few national projects we can do together, whether it’s energy corridors or building the transportation infrastructure, so we start to feel that we are trying to build a country together.

Q: The moment you raise something like an energy corridor, especially when you’re the leader of the Liberal party, well, you know how talk of energy flowing east-west rather than north-south will play in Alberta.

A: The last thing in the world I would try and bring back is the National Energy Program. I’ve gone to Alberta and said, “We got that wrong,” but for heaven’s sake, Albertans are intensely patriotic and proud Canadians; they want to contribute to a national economy. I’m not saying let’s stop the north-south flow of our energy markets, I’m saying let’s balance east-west and north-south in a way that allows us to use these stupendous energy resources for the benefit of all Canadians. And it’s not just natural gas and oil, it’s hydro. We’ve got an enormous capacity to enhance our east-west grids there that would be for the benefit of all Canadians. That’s the kind of national project I think we should do.

Q: So this is essentially a national project, and not necessarily an economic project?

A: I think you can’t have a national project that doesn’t make economic sense, right? What I hear in Quebec is not, “Leave us alone. Don’t bother, you’re irrelevant.” What I’m hearing is, “Travaillons ensemble, what can we do together?” You hear that from Premier Charest. It’s Premier Charest who says, “Well, you know, we’ve been talking about this darn Quebec City to Windsor train for 30 years, why don’t we do it?” So there’s an opportunity. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties. We’re in recession, we’ve got difficulties, but recessions are also opportunities to do some great things. I’m aware of the complexities, I’m aware that our federation is complex. You do this by consent, not by confrontation, and a prime minister can’t do it all. But a prime minister can lead, he can say, “Here are two or three things that if we did, we’d end up being a stronger country.” I think the Harper government has pursued a strategy of habituation—“You don’t like us, so we’re going to do as little as we can until you get used to us”—and that’s one reason why their vision has never been unveiled, because I think they fear that if the Canadians saw it they wouldn’t like it so much. But it means there’s a vacuum, in my view, where vision ought to be, and I think our party needs to seize that.

Q: Why did you support the budget and ask for regular reports on its progress rather than demand substantive amendments to it? Surely you don’t consider Mr. Harper’s budget to have been flawless.

A: I said it was a flawed budget. We felt that they’re the government, we’re the opposition—it’s their responsibility to manage this economy, not ours, and that the appropriate role for an opposition is to say, “Are you delivering on your promises, and is there other stuff that you’re going to do if this recession gets worse?” So we’ve put them on probation and said, “There is a problem of trust here.”

Q: Isn’t it the proper job of the opposition to say, “We’re an alternative, let us try”?

A: We will be presenting alternative policy.

Q: I mean defeating the Conservatives and taking government.

A: We had an election on the 14th of October. I had to make a decision whether it was in the national interests of the country to go into an election immediately. In my judgment it was not. I’m very aware that we are in unprecedented economic times. Right across the country everybody’s like swimmers in a swimming pool trying to get their feet on the bottom, and no one knows where the bottom is. In those circumstances, adding political uncertainties was not a responsible choice. I also felt that a coalition was not a responsible choice.

Q: Why did you sign the coalition document then?

A: I believed very strongly that a credible threat of coalition was the only thing that would get this government to wake up and give us a budget that was in the national interest. You compare where they have moved from the autumn statement of the 27th of November to the budget of the 27th of January; there’s one reason why they moved, which is that they feared that they would lose government. And we’ve now put them on probation because they can lose government in the next months if they don’t deliver on the promises in the budget.

Q: Can you point to a precedent where the opposition declares a confidence vote on a matter like this and the government falls as a consequence? Usually, the government just blows off such votes and remains in power.

A: Well, I think we have set the table so that it would be extremely difficult for this government to continue in office if they don’t continue to have our support. If we withdraw support they are back to where they were at the end of November, facing a House where they are short of the majority necessary to get their legislation. They can’t blow that off.

Q: The amendments ask the government to report on things like whether the budget and the stimulus package as they are being implemented “are minimizing existing job losses,” and “creating the employment opportunities of tomorrow.” Those are very vague phrases.

A: Not if you look at the failure to fund Genome Canada. Can you think of a better way to create the jobs of tomorrow than to fund Genome Canada?

Q: So it’s going to be up to you to define whether or not the government’s performing well within the very large and loose parameters that this amendment sets up?

A: We would also like to get the parliamentary budget officer in on this—he’s not an officer of the Liberal party, he’s an independent officer—we’d want him to assess things like the deficit projections. Many, many experts are already saying of the Flaherty budget that they are underestimating the revenue drop and overestimating the growth rate, which means that the story they’re telling Canadians about the deficit is not true. Canadians need to know just how deep the hole is that this government is digging. That’s not vague at all, that’s real clear. And decisions like Genome Canada, the decision in respect of the Newfoundland issue— informing a government on the 27th of January that you’re going to change the formula by which their resource revenue offsets are decided—has a devastating impact on one province. One of our criteria is fairness to the regions. Already this government is in difficulty on that issue.

Q: We can expect, then, to be going to the polls this spring if the government’s doing this bad already and you’re determined to bring it down if it doesn’t meet your standards.

A: I don’t engage in idle threats, and I’m not going to issue a threat. I’m simply saying that I was deadly serious when I said there’s some accountability measures, and we are going to take them seriously.

Q: What does it take before you pull the plug on this government and say, “We go to the polls”?

A: I’m not going to enter into hypotheses. What I’m going to say is these are serious accountability measures, and a week into this we already have some concerns. We’re going to watch things, like: is the money promised on infrastructure getting out the door? You can count this stuff. Canadians in the construction industry want the money to flow. Our job is to hold them to making it flow.

Q: So why not be specific, and put down real, firm yardsticks so that everyone knows that if the government doesn’t measure up it’s going to be thrown out?

A: I think you will see that these accountability criteria provide us with a grid which we can present to Canadians almost like a report card and say, “Here’s how they’ve done, folks, here’s the first quarter result. Doesn’t look too good to me,” or “They have met the basic accountability criteria we set down.” My job in opposition is to make sure that the government of Canada keeps its promise to Canadians, and that’s what I propose to do.

Q: One of the criteria is that you have to insure that the deficit is not a burden to future generations. We’re taking on the biggest load of debt since the Second World War. How can that not be a burden to future generations?

A: Well, it’s not a burden if you keep the deficit under control and the plans to get out [of] that are based on reasonable assumptions. As I’ve said, I’m concerned that their assumptions are not reasonable. Now, we’ve gotta watch that very carefully because Canadians, for good reason—because the Chrétien-Martin governments dug us out of deficit—have learned the enormous advantages of not being burdened with structural deficit. And they want the truth, they don’t want to be told a happy song as we sink into the bog, and my job is to say, “Give us the numbers. Just the facts, please, Mr. Flaherty. Just the facts, Mr. Harper.”

Q: You have defended the coalition and the association of the Liberal party with the Bloc by arguing that they’re legitimately elected parliamentarians and, while you might not like what they represent, you respect the fact that they represent a particular constituency in Quebec. Would you enter into a coalition or a similar agreement with the Bloc again?

A: My sense is I’m strongly disposed against it, but I don’t know what situations I’m going to face in the future. I thought it was legitimate to conclude an agreement because I said at the time—and have said since—I didn’t believe it would compromise the national unity of my country, and that was the bottom line for me and for every MP in my party. We’ve all learned a lesson about coalition. One of the things I took away from the experience is it awoke particularly strong feeling in the West. I’m in this country to unite Canadians, not divide them, and I took the messages from the West very seriously. There was a genuine feeling of anger on that issue, and we all have to learn from that.

Q: But the coalition wasn’t a mistake?

A: No, I’ve said that I think the coalition was not a mistake because it showed that if you messed with Parliament, Parliament would turn around and bite you and force you to take measures which this government should have taken in late November.

Q: So a coalition with the Bloc again, if circumstances present, is a possibility?

A: I’ve made it very clear that I have deep difficulty with the very possibility. What I said is that in a future in which there is a possibility of minority governments, I would not exclude making arrangements or agreements, public, transparent agreements, with other parties that will allow me to govern. But notice I did not use the word “coalition.”

Q: I’m not clear what you’re ruling out.

A: I think it’s very difficult for me to do a deal with the Bloc. But let’s be clear why: it’s not because I doubt the good faith of Mr. Duceppe or his capacity to carry out his word. My issue is that they have different strategic objectives.

Q: But you won’t rule it out categorically.

A: I am telling you I would not go into coalition agreements with the Bloc Québécois, period. That rules it out. In a situation of minority Parliaments, Canadians have to get used to the idea that it is responsible for political leaders to envisage the possibility of creating agreements or accords or political arrangements to govern in order to secure stable government, but not with the Bloc.

Q: We’ve got a stable minority Parliament for the foreseeable future. Why not submit to a conventional leadership selection process to legitimize your position as leader of the Liberal party?

A: Well, the competitors for this job withdrew.

Q: So would you invite them to come back?

A: They’ve withdrawn, and so we are where we are. I’m not going to tell them what to do. They’ve rallied to my leadership in a very positive and helpful way, and so we’re working together every day.

Q: You haven’t come up through the ranks of the party in the conventional way. You were parachuted into a safe riding without a nomination fight. Do you not think it would help to establish you as leader if you paid your dues and went through a process like that?

A: I think I’ve paid a fair bit of dues. I’ve worked day and night for the party for three years. The question implies I kind of arranged this transition. It happened because Stephen Harper launched us into a constitutional crisis—not of my making—which required the leadership of our party to take some difficult and tough decisions, and for my rivals to make very difficult decisions—which I strongly admire—and I’ve said I welcome review and ratification of my leadership in May. I’m travelling the country constantly to sit in rooms with the rank and file to take their questions, to respond and react. This is a rank-and-file party and I can’t be a good leader unless I’m listening to them at every step of the way, and at the same time rebuilding this party as a mass-based party. I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Q: But were the government to fall and were you asked to form a government tomorrow, you would be coming into the office without having won a conventional leadership race, and effectively getting the leadership through a backroom deal, without having even been elected to the position.

A: Sorry, what backroom deal are we talking about?

Q: It wasn’t a conventional leadership conference.

A: It followed all the constitutional procedures for the party.

Q: I’m not arguing that. You don’t see an absence of democratic legitimacy to it?

A: Well, as I say, we’re going to have a convention in May, we’re going to have a great convention, the rank and file are going to get a chance to ratify my leadership. I have to prove my spurs to that leadership every day to the caucus, and I sit there in front of 250 people with my sleeves rolled up taking questions from anybody, and that’s the way I propose to lead. I’m aware that I have to win my spurs with my party, that I’m very aware of, and so we’re working hard on that.

Q: You once said in a New York Times piece that intellectual life and political life require different sorts of judgment. What did you mean by that?

A: I think in intellectual life you can indulge possibilities or alternatives that are not practical possibilities here and now. The thing I think that you appreciate in political leadership—and great leaders have it—is this kind of unfailing sense of reality, and a sense of what’s possible or not possible in any given situation. The other thing is that politics is about people, so the judgments that you have to make as a political leader are not about ideas, they’re about what this person might or might not do in this or this circumstance, you know? It’s about that, and then it’s most fundamentally a judgment about what the Canadian people want. I had to make a judgment about this coalition issue, and I sat there and I just listened to a lot of Canadians for six weeks. I put my ear to the rail of Canadian life and kind of tried to hear something. Politics is an art, not a science, and so the judgments that you’re making are about people, and they’re judgments about what’s possible, and those are very different than the judgments you make in the safety of academic life.

Q: You’ve quoted Machiavelli’s argument about political judgment, that to be effective you have to follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life, and that a politician needs to know how to do wrong. What did you mean by that?

A: Heavenly days! I’m not going to endorse Machiavelli in a family magazine!

Q: You raised the issue.

A: I just meant that politicians have to make tough and difficult decisions. Whatever you do, someone is not going to be happy. There are very few political decisions that are win-win for everybody, and you have to live with that and accept that and be easy in your skin. What I would never endorse is decisions that involve illegality, that involve cruelty, fraud and deceit.

Q: You did say your political job is theatrical, more so than intellectual life, and that sometimes you’re required to pretend to have emotions that you don’t actually feel, and to take positions that you don’t necessarily believe in, and that’s all part of the job.

A: Of course it’s theatrical, it’s showtime, sometimes. Canadians have a great meter for phoniness, and you’re not going to succeed if you’re a phony. I mean, the thing I like about the job is—and this is the theatrical side—you come into a room of people on a Friday night in St. John’s, Newfoundland, or Halifax, or Vancouver, Surrey, and you know, they’ve got worries, they’ve got mortgages to pay, they’ve had a difficult day at the office. And your job—it is your job—is to get them fired up, get them to believe in the country, get them to believe in the party, get them to believe in you. And I do believe the Liberal Party of Canada is the great engine of positive, middle-of-the-road, common-sense change for our country. I’ve believed it since I was 17 years old. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

Q: I agree with your observations in the Times piece. I think anyone who writes about politics, who watches closely, knows that politicians engage in a lot of posturing. But you are a politician now and you’re keeping one foot in the intellectual or observational camp—are you going to be able to continue to do that? Because people will read that piece and think, here is this guy saying that we sometimes have to do wrong as politicans, sometimes have to pretend to have emotions, take positions we don’t believe in, and they will wonder if they are being misled or manipulated. Can you be so frank in your observations about politics and still be a politician?

A: Look, if I’ve behaved like Machiavelli counselled, Canadians should throw me out of office.

Q: You’d be murdering rivals, for starters.

A: Exactly. I don’t think we’re going to do that! They’d do more than throw me out of office, they’d put me in jail, and they’d be right to.The kernel of your question is about doing it and observing yourself doing it, and look, I’ve got where I’ve got in my life by doing both at the same time, no matter what role I had. I’ve thrown myself 100 per cent into this role and this life and this experience, but I think it’s very helpful to have a part of you that looks out to one side and sees the ridiculous side, sees when I’ve screwed up, you know? You’ve gotta have the capacity to say, “Now, wait a minute, that wasn’t so terrific.” You’ve gotta be able to observe yourself because it’s the way you improve and get better at what you’re doing. You know, like most people, I’m a work in progress.

Q: On the use of torture, an issue you’ve written about, you said that to defeat evil sometimes we have to traffic in evil, and you did advocate indefinite detention of subjects and coercive interrogation. Do you still feel the same way about those matters?

A: I think if you read the entirety of The Lesser Evil—and I think I can ask that it be read and judged in its entirety—I have a very personal horror of torture.

Q: That’s clear in the piece.

A: I believe that we are faced with people who are a danger to Canadian national security and a danger to our way of life, and we’re part of a global effort, not a war on terror but a global effort, to defeat extremism, and the message in The Lesser Evil, the metaphor that was key to me in The Lesser Evil, was democratic states have to fight this battle with one hand tied behind their back, and it’s because they tie one hand behind their back that they win. So getting to the issue of interrogation, interrogation has to be consistent with Canadian law, consistent with international conventions—like the Convention on Torture—consistent with our international obligations. It has to be rigorous and thorough, because we’re up against some threats to our security, but it must be within the traditions of the Canadian Charter and the applicable laws, and it must be subject to democratic scrutiny.

Q: Does Canadian law allow for coercive interrogation?

A: I don’t believe we should engage in those forms of coercive interrogations. Rigorous interrogation can take place without actions that would disgrace us morally or legally.

Q: What’s the difference between coercive and rigorous interrogation?

A: Rigorous interrogation is consistent with Canadian law and international standards.

Q: So it’s not coercive.

A: Not coercive.

Q: So you no longer believe that coercive interrogation is advisable.

A: When I talked about coercive interrogation, people then made the allusion right away to torture. That was never, ever, ever intended/desired/stated. There is a clear line between tough interrogations that stay on the right side of the law and stuff that gets into the area of moral disgrace, and I’ve always been clear what that line is.

Q: I greatly admired your comments a couple of years ago on Afghanistan. You said that Canada had an obligation to keep its moral promise to the Afghan people despite the mounting death toll, and you said that the Canada you love and respect always keeps its promises. Would you consider committing Canada in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline that Mr. Harper has set?

A: No. My view is that we’ve kept our promise to the Afghan people, we’ve kept our promise to the government, we’ve kept our promise to NATO, but it was never in the nature of an indefinite promise, it was a bounded promise and that the job was to train the Afghan army and police to take our place. Without a fixed deadline we can’t accomplish that work. We’ve got to get the Afghan institutions to be responsible for the security of Afghanistan. And so I’ve been clear on that subject. It doesn’t mean we cease our engagement and investment in Afghanistan. We’ve lost some brave men and women, and their sacrifice must not be in vain, and therefore sustained and even increased involvement on the humanitarian, the political and the diplomatic side seems to be part of what we need to do, but with a particular focus on the political side. I’m just very concerned that we have a military strategy, and our men and women are doing superb work but there is no diplomatic-political strategy. We need to engage with the Americans because we can’t be there forever; it’s not our country. We’ve got to engage with the Karzai government, with Pakistan, with India, with Russia, the geopolitical strategic players in the region, and say, “We all have a converging interest around stability in Afghanistan. How do we get there?” [Obama’s Afghanistan envoy] Dick Holbrooke is the kind of guy who can bang a strategy together, and I hope Canada will be a full player in that effort.

Q: Your wife, Zsuzsanna, is often at your side. How would you describe her influence and her role? She has a public relations background, or is she there for personal support?

A: She is the rock on which the life is built. She has very good political judgment. I talk to her about everything. So it’s not public relations advice, it’s everything advice.

Q: When all’s said and done, what would you have liked most to accomplish for Canada as a politician?

A: Well, I’d like to restore hope, I’d like to be part of a process in which we become more than the sum of our parts, not less than the sum of our parts. I’d like us to do a few great things together in the next decade or so, as long as I’m around—we’ve talked about some of them—strengthen the kind of east-west linkages that hold us together as a people, strengthen our citizenship, our common sense of being Canadians. People are saying, “Let’s do something together. Tous ensemble,” and I hear it from one end of the country to the other. The job of a leader is it say, “Okay, there are 47,000 things we could do together. What are the three we could actually achieve? Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it.”