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.