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Michael Ignatieff announces his resignation as Liberal Leader at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Ignatieff announces his resignation as Liberal Leader at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Exclusive Interview

Exit, Michael Ignatieff Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff serves tea on a grey afternoon in the formal sitting room of Stornoway, the official Ottawa residence of the Leader of the Opposition. He wears a comfortable sweater over an open-necked shirt, moccasins with no socks. A cat wanders across laps.

He and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, will be moving soon - to be replaced by Jack Layton and Olivia Chow.

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For Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal leader who presided over the unprecedented humiliation of his party and lost his own riding in the tumultuous, harum-scarum election campaign, the detachment from politics has begun.

He has agreed to sit down with me and talk about his election campaign experience because the two of us, it seems, have been discussing his political career since it commenced five years ago. He will not be giving other interviews for a while, he says.

He pours tea. He looks into himself as a politician, he considers the political image that his opponents and the media constructed, he talks about why he wanted to become prime minister.

He had the right message for Canada, he says, but he was the wrong messenger.

Your statement on election night has been praised for being moving, praised for its sincerity. You said you learn best from your defeats. You're not really programmed for defeat. You've been shaped to win all your life. My recollection is that the only defeat you've really experienced is when you got down to Harvard from University of Toronto as a freshly minted graduate student and discovered you were no longer the brightest kid on the block. How are you going to take this as a defeat, what's it going to mean to your personality? You were shaped by your father to win. In your last book, you saw your destiny to be prime minister ...

I would respectfully quarrel with "destiny." There is no such thing, with all due respect. It's just ridiculous. I wanted to be prime minister, but destiny? Hell no. Defeat? All I said on Monday night wasn't meant to open my veins, it was just to say, "Yes, I've learned much more from losing than winning." My sense of my own life is that I've lost as often as I've won, actually. I mean in the same sense that a ballplayer ... you know the greatest ballplayers ever to play the game bat .300. That's how I think of it. And I think there's things to learn from this; they're all about resolution and humility. Just that simple.

Are you okay with humility?

Well (laughter) everyone always says about me that it doesn't come naturally, but you know, I'm learning.

I asked graduate students at University of Toronto's Massey College [where Mr. Ignatieff will become a senior resident] "What do you think of Michael Ignatieff?" One postdoctoral student in English said, "I don't know what I think of Michael Ignatieff because everything I hear about him I've been told by others." She said she never hears what you say coming through. Is she correct? Is that part of what happened?

Yes, maybe. There's me, I'm sitting six feet away from you. There I am. And then there's next to me a creature over whom I've had some control but not all that much, as it turned out. And I think one of the key things in politics is to control that other creature. I think anybody who ... I was going to say, "Anybody who meets me loves me." (Laughter.) You know, I've had one of those lives where before I get into the room some people have an idea about me. Sometimes I can correct that idea, sometimes I can't. And I'm kind of philosophical about that. What I loved about politics was the people. I really loved meeting people, being with people, learning from people, and I don't mean that in the abstract. I can think of the guy in the cowboy hat at a meeting in Sudbury on Thursday night [before the election] ... I can see him, I can remember what he said to me. ... You know, I can go on like this for half an hour. And I hope that he came away with a feeling that he was heard and that I had respect for him, and I'd like that to be true for everybody I met. Not that they agreed, but they thought that I was listening.

But you know, all I can say is that you do your best here. There's a lot about people's images of you and ideas of you that you just can't fix because you're not even aware they're there until it's too late.

This crafted image of you as insincere, as just visiting, as elitist, it had an astonishing strength, a strength with well-educated young Canadians. Why didn't you respond to the attack ads?

We responded with the resources we had. And we responded also in the only way I knew how, which was to get out on the road ... 70,000 kilometres of four stops a day, then 40 or 50 open-mike town halls, then an election campaign in which I was out there without a Teleprompter, without notes, taking questions, just "All right, take a look." That was our reply. I mean, let's be clear, 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. And if you spend $5-million, and it would be a curious and interesting exercise to find out what they actually spent ... you know, we replied with the resources we had.

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. But the idea that I sat there not trying to reply is not right. I tried to reply with the resources I had personally and with the resources that the party had, and I'll always regret that my inability to control that narrative had an impact on the fortunes of other people.

Is what you see as the primary reason for the party doing so badly is that it was a referendum on Michael Ignatieff?

I don't think it was a referendum on Michael Ignatieff. I've said this already, if you look back at who made the case against Stephen Harper, it was the Liberal opposition who made the case on the F-35 [jet fighter] it was the Liberal opposition who made the case on the G8-G20 waste, it was the Liberal opposition who made the case on the democracy issues. I think we opened up the breach in a way against Harper and against what he stands for, and someone else surged through and benefited, and at that point maybe the attack ads had an impact on my capacity to capitalize on a longing for change. There was a longing for change that I think we played an honourable part in creating, but we couldn't benefit because someone else surged through. Good luck to him. And then what happened, of course, is, as the NDP surged through, the blue tide began to rise in counterbalance and we got squeezed in between.

I'm conscious, I'm always conscious, that a leader has to take responsibility. And I take responsibility fully for anything we failed to do. But I think it was a pretty complicated story and I don't actually think this election was a referendum on me.

Political scientist Tom Flanagan's theory, of which I'm sure you're aware, is that neither the Conservatives nor the New Democrats are going to stray too far from a centrist position because they'll lose if they do. So, given that, he argues, what's the need for a centrist party like the Liberals?

I've said for five years that the historical function of the Liberal Party was to define where the centre was. The issue now is where will the centre go. I think the centre will move to the right. Flanagan is saying, "Oh, don't worry, the centre will stay the same." I've also said that Mr. Harper will pretend to govern from the centre and move the country to the right, and Jack Layton will pretend to oppose from the centre and try to move the country to the left. And the country will have to decide after four years of this where the centre is.

But my concern is that the centre will move to the right. The centre is defined by political action. The centre moves. And it depends on who controls that centre. And Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton, their battle, will define that centre point. And I think it will be very important for the Liberal Party to be in the middle saying, "We know where the centre is. We don't have to pretend to be in the centre. We've always been in the centre and we know where it is." So we'll see how that plays out.

Your feeling is that it's the political party that more defines the centre rather than the voters?

Well, that may appear to be an arrogant assumption, and I don't want to be arrogant. But I think two things are true. I think this country is moderate, pragmatic and deeply egalitarian. So please don't have me saying that without the Liberal Party, all is lost. Please don't do that. That's not what I think. I think that out there the public that I got to know and respect is moderate, pragmatic and egalitarian. And centrist in its basic instincts, non-ideological.

But that character is influenced by the party that help define discourse. And the Liberal Party has played a useful role in reinforcing or contributing to the moderation, pragmatism, egalitarianism and anti-ideological character of the country, and that's why the Liberal Party matters. In other words, it's a double relationship between the party and the people.



My Canada has always revolved around that idea of equality of opportunity and when I look at some of the deepest-rooted causes of stagnation in the United States, it is a radically less equal society, and we've got to watch out that we don't follow the same way.

Well, we are.

And if you followed the message of the front page of the platform, I said let's put equality back at the centre of Canadian life ...

I don't have the sense that that was the conversation you had with Canadians during the election campaign.

Well the message may not have got through, but it was in every speech for 36 days.

What was the filter?

The filter was the horse-race question.

How can we do politics if you can't get those messages through?

Get a better messenger. I mean, really. I may not have been the right messenger because everybody looks at me and says Harvard ...

Is that the real issue here? You were just not the right messenger?

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. Whatever else is wrong about me, I'm not a snob about this stuff.

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