His way with words

Michael Ignatieff has a habit of opening his mouth to change feet

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The Gazette, Friday, September 1, 2006

Michael Ignatieff's entire career has been about saying clever things in a provocative way that gets noticed in the media. As a political novice, he's learning the hard way that not every question needs a provocative answer.

And as the perceived front-runner in the Liberal leadership race, he's also learning he's fair game for piling on by his opponents and for games of gotcha journalism.

Ignatieff was at the Toronto Star the other day, which is to the Liberal Party in Canada what Pravda used to be the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union. Not exactly a hostile crowd.

But when he was asked if he would run for Parliament again if he loses the leadership, Ignatieff's clipped response was: "Depends who's leader."


Quicker than you can say BlackBerry, one of Ignatieff's leadership rivals jumped into the fray with a stinging rebuke about Ignatieff's judgment and fitness for the leadership.

"These gaffes are damaging to a leadership campaign," said Scott Brison, "but they will be terminal to a national general election campaign."

That's within the bounds of fair comment in a leadership campaign, and Brison is known for mixing it up in the corners. Of course, Ignatieff, in the event he wins the leadership, might want to file that one away when he's preparing his shadow cabinet. In the meantime, he should probably assume Brison won't be endorsing him after the first ballot.

After the story appeared in the Star on Wednesday, Ignatieff spent the day furiously backpedalling. "Let's be clear," he told the Globe and Mail, "I am planning to run in the next election in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. I love being an MP, and I've enjoyed it enormously, and I'm looking forward to doing it again."

Well, there's one important lesson learned. In the immortal words of Jean Drapeau: "Never answer a hypothetical question."

Or, try this next time: "I intend to run again, and I hope to be running as leader." Next, suivant.

Ignatieff was asked the question only because he's the perceived front-runner. More specifically, would he serve under his old friend Bob Rae? Friendships have a way of becoming casualties of leadership campaigns.

I mean, is anybody asking whether Hedy Fry would stick around to serve under the new leader? Does anybody care.

But because Ignatieff is the apparent front-runner, he's got a target painted on his forehead.

But he does have a rather disconcerting habit of opening his mouth to change feet.

A couple of weeks ago, Ignatieff, the former head of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School, said he wasn't "losing sleep" over civilian casualties in Lebanon in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Later, he acknowledged this comment was a "mistake." But you can imagine how it played in the Lebanese community. In certain schools of political correctness, Ignatieff would have been sent away for sensitivity training.

Ignatieff followed up his Star visit the next day by meeting the editorial board of La Presse in Montreal. The lead story out of the interview in yesterday's paper had Ignatieff seeing Canada withdraw its troops from Afghanistan when the current mission expires in 2009.

But it was a little one-column sidebar, on Ignatieff's rules of the road for another Quebec referendum, that raised eyebrows in the political class. It's a pretty hard line he's taking. A future Parti Quebecois government would, as La Presse put it, "have to agree with Ottawa on the wording of the question," which would "have to be on the independence of Quebec, nothing more." Furthermore, a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one would not give "legitimacy," in Ignatieff's own choice of words, for the founding of a new country.

"There have to be rules in this business," Ignatieff said. "We have to have clarity. Why? Because we want to avoid civil war, and I'm very confident we will avoid it."

Civil war? It's a good thing for Ignatieff that he qualified his reference with a declaration of confidence it would be avoided.

But the very mention of "civil war" in the context of post-referendum outcomes, is rhetorically loaded. In the 30 years since the PQ was first elected, and in two referendums since, no serious public figure has ever broached the possibility of civil war.

Not once. Ever. On two occasions now, in 1980 and 1995, Quebecers have debated and voted on a fundamental question of country, without so much as a single shot being fired. We have witnessed, as Pierre Trudeau put it so eloquently in 1980, "the fullness of democracy, with all its joys and sorrows."

As someone who has made his living with words, Ignatieff ought be more careful in choosing them.

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