People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 19): Who stole Iggy’s brain?

Day 19: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie asks ‘Who stole Iggy’s brain?’

There’s a story going around that Michael Ignatieff was glad-handing in a small-town café in Manitoba when a guy at the coffee counter refused to shake the candidate’s hand. Instead, the man turned on his heels and walked away.

There aren’t many times in our lives when we get the chance to flip off a person who has a respectable shot at being prime minister (although at least one PM has flipped the bird to Canadians). Probably most of us wouldn’t do it, anyway, simply because our moms brought us up better.

I wonder why some rube in the ass end of Nowhere, Manitoba, thinks so poorly of Michael Ignatieff that he’d snub the Liberal leader. No one (other than me, with my remarks about the Undead and vague hints that Iggy travels with a coffin) has suggested Michael Ignatieff is a particularly evil man. Even his political enemies can’t come up with much worse than “opportunistic.”

Yet the idea has sunk in that somehow Michael Ignatieff is unfit to be prime minister. It is a textbook case of branding (on the part of the Tories) and failure to launch (on the part of the Liberals).

Let’s look at some CVs. Ignatieff has a gold-plated education, culminating with a Harvard PhD. He’s never been a professional politician or hanger-on. Instead, he was a BCC war correspondent, author of prize-winning books (fiction and non-fiction), and head of a prestigious department at his university.

He could have stayed put where he was, probably grossing $500K a year, or come back home to head one of the better Canadian universities at twice that amount.

Compare him to Stephen Harper, a professional politician who started off as a flunky to a backbench Tory MP during the Mulroney years, then jumped to Preston Manning. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Calgary but it was never published, nor was it even turned into an academic paper. Other than a few years as a lobbyist for the mysterious National Citizen’s Coalition, he’s either been a pol or a hanger-on.

Last night’s English debate shows how well Ignatieff has been defined through years of Conservative attack ads and by Tory shills in the media. Ignatieff, when he was rolling about democracy and truth, was on the ball. Still, Harper, doing the Mohammed Ali rope-a-dope, was able to stay on his feet.

Last night was part of a storyline that, when I talk to my cat, I call “Who Stole Iggy’s Brain?” Because here’s a guy who has studied enough history to know that you can’t shame the shameless or reason with the unreasonable.

Yet that’s what he seemed to be doing last night.

Maybe the 800,000 Liberals who sat out the 2008 Dion fiasco might have come back to the fold if Ignatieff had tossed away all the notes and advice from his brain trust and said to Harper: “I’m sick of you running ads with ugly pictures of me that put words in my mouth and make me look like an idiot. And I’m sick of the slurs that your creepy little henchmen are spreading about me, my grandparents, my parents, and, these last few days, my wife.”

And if he followed it up with: “Why should I feel guilty about being a winner and coming back to Canada to run for office? At least I’ve held a real job in my life that didn’t rely on my ass-kissing politicians or lying about my opponents.”

Instead, Ignatieff tried to be Prime Ministerial, to introduce himself to all the Canadian people and engage in a serious policy debate about a surprising narrow and uninteresting range of issues. The policies that are being rolled out by all the parties are simply tinkering. It’s like listening to four guys with no more than $5 to their names argue about who was picking up the cheque at Hy’s.

All along, Ignatieff has tried to play Harper’s game. To use a hockey analogy, Harper’s a grinder and Iggy keeps going to the corners. He showed last night that he needs a breakaway, to come up with something that makes people think, and that makes him think.

But he doesn’t ask the hard questions.

Let me toss some out: What are we going to do about trade deals that always seem to end with Canadian jobs being exported to Mexico and the developing world?

What are we going to do about the poverty that grips most of Canada outside of entitled and protected enclaves in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver? No one seems to care that small-town and rural Canada is dying. Of the 20 most liveable communities in Canada, 18 are university and government towns. All of those in the bottom 50 are small communities in the hinterlands — places where people used to make things, work in forestry and run trains.

What are we going to do about Native Canadians? We have a huge Department of Indian Affairs, hundreds of lawyers arguing land claims, yet the kids in Attawapiskat – where a new diamond mine just opened – don’t have a school. It might have rung a few bells when Bruce Carson’s Twinkie made the news for peddling water filters to reserves. Lord knows, with 60 percent of reserve residents unable to drink from their taps, the filters are needed.

Why does it take the incomes of two moderately well-paid working people to afford anything resembling a decent house in Canada and keep the creditors at bay? Why are working families worse off today than families in the 1950s, even though many mothers in the Father Knows Best age were able to stay at home?

Iggy showed last night that he understands democracy and the importance of Parliament and its supporting institutions. He clearly articulated that Harper’s a control freak.

But he needs to start talking about Canada. He needs to find out why Canadians are so angry that they’d consider re-electing Harper and people like John Baird, then articulate a vision, the way Obama did in 2008.

And he better do it fast.