Inside the Liberal effort to resurrect Michael Ignatieff - Macleans.ca

Inside the Liberal effort to resurrect Michael Ignatieff

Ignatieff has done a lot of things right, but he’s still dead in the polls

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Flatlined

Photograph by Christopher Pike

Michael Ignatieff has been among the people.

“I’m in Newfoundland two weeks ago,” the Liberal leader said over tea in the sunroom at Stornaway, the official Opposition leader’s residence. On the wall behind him was a landscape by the Winnipeg artist Ivan Eyre, all slate-grey skies and autumn foliage. “And I’m in a training centre run by the operating engineers’ union. Great union. And this training site is training people in heavy machinery. Everything from bulldozers to cranes.

“A third of the kids in the course are women. Half of the women are on social assistance. They’re desperate to get a union ticket to be bulldozer drivers or crane operators. They’re fabulously determined. It’s a tough course. They put me into these damned cranes and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and they look fabulous. One of the women said to me, ‘You know, this is my ticket out of here. This is the ticket that allows me out of social assistance. This is my ticket that allows me to feed my kids. But I can’t do this if I don’t get child care.’

“When you hear a woman tell you that, you understand a lot about the economy. Unless we make these kinds of investments—in child care, in post-secondary education, in home care—we’re not going to meet the economic challenges we’ve got.”

Many hundreds of times since Ignatieff acceded to the Liberal leadership amid the wreckage of Stéphane Dion’s doomed late-2008 attempt to form a coalition government, he has read that he is a poncy silver-spoon egghead who can’t begin to imagine the struggles of ordinary Canadians. He handles this challenge by assuring a visitor repeatedly that he is not a poncy egghead. Addressing the plight of that young woman in Newfoundland “isn’t social policy,” he says. “This is rededicating ourselves to the equality of opportunity that made our country strong.”

As he spoke, there was at least a slim chance Ignatieff would find himself in a federal election campaign within a week. The semi-annual frenzy of election speculation—every September and March like clockwork—was rocking the nation’s capital. The papers were full of theories. Baroque manoeuvres in the Commons could bring Stephen Harper down any day. Everyone has to be ready for a campaign, just in case.

Now here’s the thing about Michael Ignatieff. He is doing almost everything better than Stéphane Dion was doing on the eve of the Liberal wipeout in the 2008 election. Ignatieff has spent nearly a year on the road, honing his retail skills, often for audiences of strangers he had to learn to persuade. He is not putting any highly divisive policy in the window comparable to Dion’s carbon-tax scheme. He can defend himself against attack, comprehensibly and often better than that, in two languages. His Office of the Leader of the Opposition is disciplined and coherent. His caucus deploys serious talent well. Ties between his parliamentary shop and the national Liberal party are smooth and respectful. Fundraising is a gong show. You can’t have everything.

But still: it is reasonable to expect Ignatieff will field the strongest Liberal campaign operation since Jean Chrétien’s last battle in 2000. And yet he is flatlining in the polls.

The website threehundredeight.com runs a monthly average of all federal political polls in Canada. In November, December and January, the Ignatieff Liberals averaged 28 per cent while the Harper Conservatives varied from 33 to 35 per cent.

So far, not too bad. A popular-vote outcome of 35 per cent to 28 would be about five points closer than the 2008 drubbing. The Liberals would perform only slightly worse than in 2006, when they lost to Harper for the first time.

Flatlined

Photograph by Blair Gable

But Ignatieff’s personal numbers are worse. Nanos Research publishes an occasional “leadership index” that combines respondents’ perceptions on trust, competence and vision for Canada. At the end of February, Harper’s score was as high as it’s been since Ignatieff became Liberal leader, at 98.9. Ignatieff’s was its lowest yet, at 36.9. His leadership index score has been below NDP Leader Jack Layton’s for 14 straight months.

Also in February, Harris Decima found that Ignatieff is viewed positively by 25 per cent of respondents and unfavourably by 51 per cent. That’s the lowest positive score of any national leader, and the highest unfavourable rating. The lowest positive rating Harris Decima ever measured for Stéphane Dion was 30 per cent. Ignatieff has been at or below that level for more than a year.

He’s being the best Liberal leader he can be. The reviews are really bad. What does he have to say about that?

Well, really, what can he say? He paused for a long time when I put the question to him, then answered slowly and very quietly. “I think about that question a different way than you do. It’s going to sound odd, but I just think we’re doing the right thing. I don’t even know why, all the time. I just know it’s the right thing when I’m out on the road. I see the connection we establish with Canadians. I see the way they’re listening. I feel that we’ve pulled an approach to politics off the road, from the bottom up, endless open mikes, endless listening. Instead of just denouncing the way Harper does politics, we’ve actually tried to do a different kind of politics.

“I’m on the road all the time. But look: I’ve shaken 50,000 hands, had 15,000 long conversations with Canadians. Of course it’s not going to show in the polls. The numbers aren’t large enough. I just think we’re getting in the right place.”

Privately, senior Liberals make much the same case. They have decided they can’t catch a fair break until an election begins. Most Canadians ignore politics if they can. News organizations pay much more attention to any government than to any opposition politician. That won’t change until a campaign begins. So Liberals are less and less interested in delaying an election.

It’s a paradoxical game plan at best. Maybe catastrophic. Their guy’s desperately unpopular? Then get him in front of voters as soon as possible. Still, it’s what you hear from more and more Liberals.

“Harper’s game plan is going to be all about: ‘The risk is too great to change governments now,’ ” a senior Ignatieff adviser said. “Maligning Ignatieff is part of that. That’s an appealing position for Harper. It makes sense. It’s a variation on what any incumbent would do.

“But at the same time there’s a kind of micro-story that, yeah, that might be true, but people individually feel they’re struggling. They’re having a really hard time making ends meet. Nobody really cares about them. And they’re anxious about the future. And they don’t feel Harper has the answers.
“And I think the opportunity is there for somebody like our guy—who’s seen as a bit of an egghead—and a party with our values to break through in an election.

“So why haven’t we been able to move? The moment might not be ripe enough. A year from now might be better, conceivably.”

So the Liberals might prefer to wait a year for an election? Here they are quick to point out that it’s not their call. “I’ve got 76 seats,” Ignatieff says. Not enough to bring a government down. He learned that lesson, to his considerable cost, in the fall of 2009 when he tried to force an election and the NDP propped the government up. “Jack Layton’s got a say. Gilles Duceppe’s got a say. But the crucial person who’ll decide whether we have an election or not is Stephen Harper.”

What’s really happening is that the Liberals are finally beginning to realize there is a cost to every choice, including paralysis. “The window might not be wide open now, but I mean, f…, it might be closed in six months,” the senior Ignatieff adviser said.

“Especially when the cost is further self-abnegation or self-mutilation from having to pull our punches. Or vote with the government. Or whatever. It’s a vicious circle, because when you do that you inhibit your ability to differentiate yourself from the government. It actually makes a lot more sense to just say, ‘F… it. They’re wrong. This guy’s numbers don’t add up. They’re actually more about F-35s and building $9-billion prisons. This government doesn’t give a s..t about you. Let’s go.’

“If we don’t go, we’re no worse off. In fact, we’re probably better off for having defined ourselves and laid down the markers. And if we do go? It’s a minority government. Things happen. These things aren’t meant to last forever.”

It’s not precisely the most stirring victory cry in the history of Canadian politics. The Liberals have made too careful a study of recent changes of government to kid themselves about how hard a task they face. “The last time the Liberals took down a Conservative government, Brian Mulroney was deeply unpopular,” the senior Ignatieff adviser said. “We had a deep recession and a constitutional crisis. And they’d been in office for almost a decade. The last time Conservatives beat Liberals,” in 2006, “the Liberals had been in power for, what, 13 years all told? And there was a casus belli with the sponsorship fiasco.

“What we’re trying to do here, what we’ve got to do, is try to win, absent those conditions.”

To do that, Ignatieff made a series of moves, beginning in late 2009, to whip a listless and underperforming Liberal operation into shape. He fired Ian Davey, his chief of staff, one of the Toronto Liberals who had driven to Harvard a few years earlier to persuade Ignatieff to return to Canada and enter politics. Most of Davey’s senior staff would not last much longer. In Davey’s place, Ignatieff hired Peter Donolo.

Donolo was the communications director who helped make Jean Chrétien prime minister in 1993. He brought a half-dozen Chrétien-era veterans with him into Ignatieff’s office, instituted clear mandates and lines of authority throughout the Office of the Leader of the Opposition—and watched for months while very little changed. Ignatieff was not more popular. The Conservatives ran waves of ads hammering home the notion that the Liberal who’d spent decades in England and the United States was “just visiting.”

So last autumn, to less fanfare, Donolo and Ignatieff instituted another wave of change. They appointed the Saskatchewan veteran Ralph Goodale as Ignatieff’s deputy leader, replacing him as Liberal House leader with Ottawa MP David McGuinty, the Ontario premier’s brother. Marcel Proulx from across the river in Hull-Aylmer became the Liberal whip.

 

Flatlined

Fred Chartrand/Cp; Sean Kilpatrick/Cp;

With McGuinty and Proulx running the Liberal operation in the House of Commons, and Goodale acting as a reliable fill-in leader during Ignatieff’s frequent road trips, the OLO has become even more of an executive operation. “The leader’s not a micromanager,” one Liberal staffer said. “He likes strong people doing their job around him.”

Goodale, who never seemed a great fit as House leader, plays a role roughly comparable to Joe Biden’s as vice-president in Barack Obama’s White House: he does not play on every file but he brings real clout when he does intervene. “He chairs a couple of strategy sessions a week with the leader and colleagues,” the senior adviser said. “On thorny issues, the leader will ask him to talk to people, sometimes inside caucus, sometimes outside. Before we jump into something he does a lot of reconnaissance.”

Ignatieff can trust Goodale to carry the ball in the Commons while he tours the country. In some ways, the Liberal leader has become so hands-off that long-time observers of the highly centralized Harper operation might be surprised. There’s this, for instance: neither Ignatieff nor Donolo attends the twice-daily question period strategy sessions.

McGuinty chairs both meetings, the first at 8 a.m., the second just before the daily jousting match. Jeremy Broadhurst, a young lawyer who has worked in the OLO since 2006, briefs the morning senior-staff meeting on the QP plan at 8:30. Donolo and others might suggest amendments to the day’s plan but they rarely do. Ignatieff is briefed, again by Broadhurst at 9:30. MPs’ offices prepare questions all morning long and McGuinty checks progress right after lunch. Ignatieff asks the questions that are needed from him at the top of QP at 2:15 p.m.

Throughout Harper’s tenure as opposition leader, and well after he became Prime Minister, he would meet at lunch with the entire shadow cabinet or cabinet for a group QP rehearsal. “The leader has to focus on what’s important,” the senior Ignatieff adviser said, hinting at the heretical possibility that QP prep might not be the most essential use of a party leader’s time. “I know in the past, other opposition leaders and even [Ignatieff], in other circumstances, would go in there and work up the question period lineup, rehearse his questions. But no.”

The same highly regimented approach to assignments works on the staffing side, too. It’s often said that the OLO is run, not by Peter Donolo, but by Pat Sorbara, a former adviser to one-time Ontario premier David Peterson. Sorbara’s name appears below Donolo’s on the org chart. Her title is “chief operating officer.” That’s telling. Somebody with less clout would be styled the “director of operations,” but Sorbara really is a chief. She is charged with running the details of the OLO operation while Donolo handles broad-strokes strategy. That means for most Liberal staffers, the most stressful phone call they can imagine will come from Sorbara. She doesn’t breathe fire, a Liberal party insider said, “but she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And if she doesn’t like you, you don’t last long.”

Sorbara has also been working on voter identification and motivation, the meat and potatoes of modern campaigning. With Gordon Ashworth, the Liberals’ eternal national campaign chairman, she road-tested the database software and focused messaging for a campaign during last autumn’s by-elections in Winnipeg and Vaughan, outside Toronto. The Liberals lost Vaughan narrowly but won the Winnipeg riding from the NDP. “We’re running at the same speed as the Tories now on that stuff,” the Liberal party insider said of the party’s voter ID techniques. “That makes a big difference.”

So where’s the growth for a Liberal party that desperately needs growth? Disaffected former Liberals, mostly. People who’ve stayed home rather than vote for Paul Martin or Stéphane Dion. “The new Liberal voter that we need to win back is largely female, largely 50 and under, largely suburban, largely middle class—lower middle class too—largely indebted, largely non-Anglo-Saxon,” the senior Ignatieff adviser said. “But not exclusively, right? Just like the Conservative voter is largely male; largely over 50; largely Western Canadian; largely rural.

“The problem is we left too many of those folks at home in the last election. So that’s who our vote is. We’re already doing fine with certain segments. Not enough. We’re doing fine with youngish voters, but there are issues there with turnout. We’re doing fine with university-educated voters, but again, there’s not enough of this to go around.”

Flatlined

Photograph by Christopher Pike

What the Liberals really must avoid, this person said, is a fragmented vote. “In an election that’s going to be heavily polarized—that we’re going to work like mad to polarize—[the NDP] get squeezed big time. And we need to squeeze them big time because we can’t afford an NDP at 18 per cent and a Bloc at 10 per cent. Can’t afford that.

“Frankly we also can’t afford a Bloc at the level they’re at. You’re going to see a very different treatment of the Bloc than it has been in the past. It’s going to be less, ‘You’re bastards who want to destroy the country.’ It’s going to be, ‘Actually, you Quebecers haven’t got a thing in common with Harper. You abhor him more than any other Canadians do. And if you really want to get rid of him, don’t vote Bloc. Because voting for the Bloc is what keeps him in office.’ ”

That’s the rhetoric. What are they going to put in their platform? What’s there to vote for, besides a clever parsing of Conservative shortcomings?

In the sunroom at Stornoway, Ignatieff gave a pretty detailed answer to that question. The Liberals have been refining their platform for more than a year. “There are two fundamental issues for the country,” Ignatieff said. “One is, ‘Does this Prime Minister respect the democratic restrictions placed on the authority of a prime minister? Yes or no?’

“Issue number two is, ‘Can this Prime Minister be trusted, as we move forward, with the key sources of economic success?’ Which are: a health care system you can count on; a pension system you can count on; child care when you need it to get into the job market.”

On the first issue, the Liberals do not believe the nation is with them in believing Harper is a threat to democracy. The constant drip-drip of embarrassing stories has ignited no national outrage. Bev Oda altered a memo from her department to make support for a project look like opposition. A fundraising letter went out from Jason Kenney’s office on ministerial letterhead, not Conservative party stationery.

“It’s not the burning issue in the mind of the average voter,” a Liberal who has worked on the platform said. “But it’s significant because it’s significant. This is a government and a Prime Minister that have demonstrated again and again and again and again that they think the rules don’t apply to them. Sometimes they think the laws don’t apply to them. There really is a real issue about our democracy being eroded. It’s quite real.”

There are, in fact, some in the Liberal caucus who think the only way to spark a public debate about such relatively arcane issues is to put them at the centre of an election campaign. Which is why some MPs quietly support provoking an election before the March 22 budget, if it can be done.

As for the economic stuff, it gives the Liberals a shot—a long shot, to be sure—at displacing the Conservatives as a party that working-class Canadians feel is on their side.

“I actually think that the reason our country has been economically successful since the Second World War—in Liberal governments, in Conservative governments, in and out—has been that we’ve cared about equality of opportunity,” Ignatieff said.

Equality of opportunity will be a running theme of the Liberal campaign, then. It is a darned sight less flashy than Dion’s plan to shift billions of dollars from income taxes to carbon taxes, but it may sound less like it was delivered to the electorate by space aliens.

The Liberals will target rising university tuition. How? “Watch this space,” Ignatieff said. “We’ve got a very specific, costed, serious investment to make in removing barriers to access in post-secondary education. I’m thinking particularly of those Canadian families whose moms and dads didn’t get a chance at a university or college education and they want their kids to go. And we’re going to do something additional for Aboriginal Canadians.”

They’ve already announced a compassionate-leave plan to allow Canadians to take time off work, paid out of the Employment Insurance fund, to care for elderly relatives in declining health. They’ll also work to supplement the Canada Pension Plan through voluntary supplementary payments into the public pension system. They will, having twice lost the debate to the Conservatives about public child care versus direct cash payments to parents, try again with a more modest daycare project.

“One Canadian child in five under the age of five has access to a certified child care space. That’s not good enough,” Ignatieff said. “Nobody’s going to ram child care down families’ throats if they don’t want it. That stuff about ‘choice’ “—the preferred Conservative mantra for their per-child cheques—”is nonsense. You don’t have a choice if you don’t have child care spaces. And we haven’t built enough child care spaces in Canada.”

“There’s a universe of contrast opportunity on this ground,” said the Liberal who has been working on the party’s platform, “if we can actually get heard.”

This is the gamble the Liberals are rallying around, with varying degrees of enthusiasm: that they will be heard if they can start a real fight. Party pollster Michael Marzolini tells them approval for Ignatieff is higher among the narrow slice of the electorate that pays attention to politics between elections. Very well then: widen the slice. Don’t fear the electorate. Run toward it, arms waving.

“When the lights go on in an election, Canadians will have an alternative,” Ignatieff said. “That’s my job. My job is to give them an alternative. And then they’re the boss. They’ll decide what they’re going to do.”