The Commons: And so it begins

Shortly after the bells chimed to signal three-quarters past nine—after the Prime Minister had gone to Rideau Hall and after the Governor General had formally dropped the writs—Michael Ignatieff walked out from under the Peace Tower and stepped into the sun.

He wore a bright red scarf atop a long black coat. A dozen Liberal MPs walked alongside him. It was cold, but bright. A row of television cameras and television characters awaited. “We’re here today, a beautiful spring day, a little chilly, but you can feel spring is coming,” Mr. Ignatieff said after arriving at his appointed podium. “The Harper winter will soon be over.”

His retinue chuckled.

“We’re here in front of a symbol of our democracy. And we’re here to start our campaign. And it started because yesterday, in this place behind us, for the first time in our history, a Prime Minister was found guilty by the House of Commons of contempt for our parliamentary institutions. And that’s why we’re having an election,” Mr. Ignatieff clarified. “So this election is not just an exercise in democracy, it’s about democracy.”

Indeed, an hour earlier, Mr. Ignatieff had released a statement entitled “Rules of Democracy.”

“We will be asking Canadians to choose between a Prime Minister that shows scant respect for our institutions,” Mr. Ignatieff continued, “and a Liberal team that believes profoundly that the first thing you expect of a government is respect for democratic principle.”

And on that call to a minimum standard of acceptable behaviour does the 2011 election campaign thus begin.

It has been said that Michael Ignatieff did not come back for “you,” but whatever the initial inspiration, he arrives now at the greatest test of his chosen profession. Six years ago he decided to enter formal politics. The next five weeks will determine the outcome of that decision.

In the moments after yesterday’s vote, after the House had been adjourned and after everyone had begun to scatter, Mr. Ignatieff stood in his spot. Standing straight and tall, he lingered for awhile, smiling, but not quite grinning. After a few seconds, he turned and smiled at his wife up in the gallery. Maybe he was taking a moment to remember what it felt like. Maybe he was simply unsure what to do now. Either way, he had made his choice. Now it is for others to choose.

“This is a moment of clear choice between economic alternatives. Mr. Harper says, ‘oh we can’t risk our prosperity with an election.’ As if democracy was some kind of pesky obstacle. It’s not. We have elections so that people can choose their economic path,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “In this election, do you want tax giveaways for the most profitable corporations when their corporate tax rate is already competitive? Do you want to spend $30-billion on fighter jets? Do you want to spend billions of dollars on prisons?”

For those who desire to know what the “ballot question” is, here were half a dozen options.

“Wouldn’t you rather invest it in family care?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you rather invest it in child care and early childhood learning for every family who needs it? Wouldn’t you rather invest it in making sure that when kids want to go to college and university they can do so? Wouldn’t you rather have a society that thinks that our economic prosperity has to be based on equal opportunity for all?”

He stressed these last words and then made sure we hadn’t missed his emphasis.

“Equality is the key here,” he said. “Early learning and child care for every Canadian family. Making sure that no family’s excluded from the promise of post-secondary education because of income. Making sure that when mom and dad get sick, you can get some help, you can take some time off. Making sure that the Canada Pension Plan will be there for you when you retire. Making sure that you have a Canada that takes care of the environment, that invests in green technology and green jobs. These are the passionate, optimistic, hopeful options that we offer to Canadian people.”

These are the ideals and ideas upon which Michael Ignatieff now places himself for judgment.

But first, a couple clarifications. A Liberal government, Mr. Ignatieff said, will not enter into a coalition with any of the other parties. And a Liberal government, Mr. Ignatieff explained, will not raise taxes on Canadian families.

“And so,” he said, “we face the next 36 days with optimism and hope. Spring is coming. A spring is in our step. We’re looking forward to the campaign. We’re looking forward to a debate of ideas and principles.”

And indeed, more questions.

“Who can be counted on defend our democracy?” Mr. Ignatieff asked. “Who can be counted on to step up and defend our families? Who can be counted on to protect and defend our environment? Who can be counted on to protect and restore Canada’s prestige on the world stage?”

Then it was for the television characters to ask their questions, the first, inevitably, having to do with Mr. Ignatieff’s statement on democratic procedure.

“I feel I owe it to the Canadian people to be perfectly clear. So they know what they’re doing when they vote for the Liberal party,” Mr. Ignatieff explained. “And if they want an alternative to the Harper government, a compassionate, responsible alternative to the Conservative government, to a government which has betrayed the principles for which this Parliament stands, then they should vote for a Liberal government.”

That is Mr. Ignatieff’s answer, to this and all other questions. On May 2 we will see how many people agree with him.

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