Stephen Harper has his majority. Jack and Olivia have Stornoway. Exit Michael Ignatieff to the consoling nurture of University of Toronto’s Massey College (which he’ll find aesthetically more attractive than Stornoway, inside and out). The now-former leader of the Liberal Party said in his interview with me — see the May 6 and May 7 issues of The Globe and Mail – that his career as a politician is over, that he has no plans to return to his former life as a public intellectual, no plans to write a memoir, and that whatever he has to say about politics will be said in the classroom (“I’m going back into a classroom because the only damn thing I can do that’s any use to anybody is to teach kids what I learned and what mistakes I made”).
Mr. Ignatieff will need time to work out what politics has done to him. Canadians rarely observe someone so publicly humiliated and, when that someone is a Michael Ignatieff who has lived a life of publicly acclaimed achievements, Canadians are likely to politely look away and not stare.
In his interview with me, he said, “I was aware from the minute I entered politics that I had to control the narrative of my life. I did my best to do that. There’s no question that I failed.” It was an issue he returned to more than once in our conversation. He said, “I couldn’t turn on the Super Bowl, the Oscars, Hockey Night in Canada or Grey’s Anatomy without seeing some lies spread about my allegiance to my country or my motives for being in political life.” He said he wanted to campaign on the important issues — growing inequality and access to education in Canada — but could not hold that conversation with Canadians because he couldn’t get by the filter of ‘the horse-race.”
Yet he rejected the notion that the campaign had been a referendum on him — which is both the subject of this post and the unspooling of a thread to the much broader issues that comprise the theme of our blog. Indeed, there are clues scattered through this post to where our blog will lead. There’s a clue in University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan’s provocative statement that policies are mere props in an election campaign war to choose people (in Mt. Ignatieff’s case, by trivial character assassination). There’s a clue in Montreal post-doctoral student Erin MacLeod’s profound insight into the distinction between Prime Minister Harper and Mr. Ignatieff resting on the difference between faith and knowledge. And there’s still a third clue in pollster Frank Graves’s revelation that beyond the perception of Canadian social and political values shifting to the right lies the reality that progressive values outnumber conservative values by a ration of 2-to-1, but that conservatives, far more than liberals/progressives, understand how to make their values emotionally resonate. These issues and others will be explored in the weeks and months to come.
“I’m conscious, I’m always conscious that a leader has to take responsibility,” Mr. Ignatieff told me. “But . . . I don’t actually think this election was a referendum on me.”
David Herle also rejected the idea. Mr. Herle was a key aide to former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and is now a media commentator and principal partner in The Gandalf Group,a political consulting firm with a golden client list. In his view, Mr. Ignatieff led the party into an unprecedented defeat because right-of-centre Liberals switched their votes to the Conservatives to stop an NDP government. Another explanation was offered by Toronto Star columnists Tim Harper and Thomas Walkom and pollster Allan Gregg: that the Conservatives won because of vote-splitting in Ontario (including Toronto) between the Liberals and the NDP. And still others theorized that the Canadian electorate had polarized, allowing the Liberal-in-the-middle Party to be cannibalized by the New Democrats and Conservatives, or they posited that hundreds of thousands of Canadian voters suddenly realized that the Canadian economy was safer in the hands of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Undoubtedly there are elements of substance in those explanations; they come from clever political observers. Yet the referendum-on-Michael-Ignatieff is consistent with how Canadians have wrestled with their assessment of him since his entry into political life six years ago. It is consistent with the primary ballot-box issue on which the Conservatives campaigned. It is astonishing how effective the Conservatives’ attack-ads have been, how effective all references have been to his personality and image — not only with those who don’t pay attention to politics or those committed to the Conservative Party and its ideology, but also with young, highly educated, urban Canadians — the people, especially the female people, who should have been his supporters.
Why is all this important? Because without an accurate assessment of why Canadians voted as they did, we don’t have an understanding of what politically is going on. The Herle scenario has centre-right Liberals more afraid of Jack Layton’s socialist hordes than Stephen Harper’s neo-cons. Given that the NDP is substantively removed from socialism and shares many election policies with the Liberals and Conservatives, that’s difficult to swallow, unless, of course Liberal voters are ignorant of their country’s political landscape. The numbers published May 9 in The Globe and Mail suggest that the greatest abandonment of the party was done by centre-left Liberals moving to the NDP. But why should that happen? The flip side of the Herle thesis would be that large numbers of Liberal supporters went to the NDP to block a Conservative government, which doesn’t make sense. Nor does it make sense that they moved in large numbers to the NDP because they decided their own party wasn’t left enough. Frank Graves, the scholarly president of Ekos Research, says his polls indicate Canadians’ political values haven’t shifted. So if both Left and Right Liberals abandoned their party at the same time, does it mean the Liberals’ policies were worse than than the NDP’s or the Conservatives’? The Liberals made growing inequality in Canada the centrepiece of their platform. Mr. Ignatieff says he mentioned it in every speech he gave for 36 days. It also was a centrepiece of the NDP platform. The Liberals and the NDP were together on opposing the reduction of corporate income taxes. Otherwise — to quote Conrad Black — there wasn’t much more than a hair’s width between Conservative and Liberal financial policies. I’d be inclined to trust Baron Black of Crossharbour on something like that.
Early in the election campaign, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Harper chief of staff, wrote: “Campaigns result in the choice of people to fill positions, not ideas to be implemented. Policies are props — useful to demonstrate the worthiness of people and parties, but useless on their own.”
And, yes, Canada is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy and therefore Canadians don’t vote for a leader. But in fact that’s exactly who they do vote for. And Canadians by and large did not want to vote for Michael Ignatieff. He said as much himself. There was nothing wrong with his party’s message, he told me. But he wasn’t the right messenger.
I don’t want to do a lot of floundering in the water asking why he wasn’t the right messenger. I merely want to establish that he wasn’t, and establish that it did bad things to his party. For a variety of reasons, some natural, some artificially created by the Conservative Party, a lot of Canadians didn’t like him, a dynamic that has occurred on a comparable scale only once before in our history, with an oddly similar man: Arthur Meighen.
Unlike Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Meighen, a Conservative, did get to be prime minister (for a total of two years in two chunks, between July 1920 and September, 1926). But he is the only other leader of either the Liberals or Conservatives to pilot his party into third place in an election campaign. And when he led his party into defeat in 1926, he also — like Mr. Ignatieff — lost his own constituency.
He was brilliant. He probably remains Canada’s greatest political orator. And he was once described as “a master of everything but politics.” He was seen as icy, uncaring, inflexible, unable to command support from labour, westerners or Quebeckers and so authoritarian that he frightened voters. He left politics bitter, convinced that the people had chosen fools to lead them and fearful of the loss of what he saw as “the old values”. His friend, the great constitutional scholar Eugene Forsey said of Mr. Meighen’s political demise, that he “strode up the bare staircase of his duty, uncheered and undismayed.”
One thinks of Senator Forsey’s eulogy, listening to Mr. Ignatieff’s mocking comment to me on his own political fate: “Well, you would have thought that someone associated with highly expensive and pretentious higher education would actually be the right messenger for a passionately egalitarian message about education, for a passionately egalitarian vision of the country.”
To begin with, women do not like him. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien had 20-point leads with women over their Conservative opponents. Mr. Ignatieff got nowhere close. Although his gender gap was smaller than Stephen Harper’s he never connected well with either women or younger voters. Frank Graves of Ekos points out that one of Michael Ignatieff’s big problems throughout his tenure as leader was that he appealed to the same constituency as Mr. Harper , albeit much more weakly. And he did start out the election campaign leading the prime minister with the university educated and non Canadian born which he surrendered to both Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton.
Leadership polls done by Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press showed a year ago just how bad the view of Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership was. The Harris-Decima polls showed that both Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper had negative net ratings – more people disliked them than liked them: Mr. Harper by a negative score of minus-10, Mr. Ignatieff by minus-26. What was highly unusual about Mr. Ignatieff’s score is that Canadians were paying sufficient attention to an opposition leader outside an election campaign to indicate they disliked him intensely.
An Ekos poll done for the University of Toronto’s Walter Gordon Symposium organized by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance found that substantially more Canadians thought Mr. Ignatieff was smarter than Stephen Harper, but the prime minister’s macho emotional image played better with the electorate. Ekos president Frank Graves said the then-Liberal leader’s intellectual sophistication may in fact have worked against him by projecting an image of uncertainty that Canada’s increasingly older population in particular doesn’t like. Mr. Graves’s survey shows that Canadians in general overwhelmingly reject emotion in their politicians and declare it has little place in their own political choices – a response he describes as delusional and contrary to common sense and evidenced by the paradoxical fact that they want a more chauvinistic – which is an emotional attribute – political culture, with courage heading the list of emotions they prefer most in their politicians, a view of politics dramatically supported by men over the age of 45, who Mr. Graves describes as having a stranglehold on the political agenda.
As for the gender gap, I noticed it in the polls 18 months ago and wrote an article about it for The Globe and Mail. I was astonished by what women told me. Ph.D student Sarah Knudson from Vancouver: “For me, it is more Ignatieff the person than Ignatieff the ensemble of ideological and policy perspectives that turns me off. I do not see him as a trustworthy person. He is intelligent but has crossed over into arrogance – so unsexy. The Ignatieff persona does not appeal to me, and I am a woman.” Another doctoral candidate, Heather Andres from Winnipeg: “I don’t find his appearance memorable. He looks just like another business person or another academic or another politician. I guess that suggests I’m still not very familiar with him. My brain doesn’t recognize him.” And it wasn’t just young women who turned away from him; the phenomenon was even stronger among women over age 50. Many rejected him — permanently — because he had once expressed support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
And at the end of this election campaign, Erin MacLeod, a post-doctoral researcher from Montreal, drew this intriguing distinction between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper: “Ignatieff demands that you listen to him and think he’s right, while Harper just wanted people to put faith in the Conservative party that they would sort out what to do when it needed doing. It was as if Ignatieff had his book about Canada all ready, presumptuously written–and that’s what makes him paternalistic.”
Thus to summarize. For younger Canadians wanting vision, they looked at Mr. Ignatieff and saw no vision. For older Canadians wanting that mystical thing called “leadership,” they looked at Mr. Ignatieff and did not see leadership. For women wanting someone whom they could trust and not feel threatened by, they looked at Mr. Ignatieff and saw distrust and paternalism. I don’t understand it all. I travelled with him through British Columbia in August 2010, and saw this. But then again, Eugene Forsey possibly never understood why Canadians couldn’t stand Arthur Meighen.
So exit Michael Ignatieff, non player. And the rest of us can get on with investigating just what exactly is happening in Canadian politics.