Skip to main content
adam radwanski

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff salutes the crowd after slipping on a team jersey during a town hall meeting with high school students in Sault Ste Marie, Ont.

With all the scrutiny he's received in recent years, it's sometimes easy to forget that this has been Michael Ignatieff's first national campaign as Liberal Leader.

Although he hasn't had as many memorable gaffes as one might expect, the former academic would be the first to admit it's been a learning experience for him. And at the same time, the rest of us have learned a few things about what kind of politician Mr. Ignatieff is.

1. He's passionate

He was billed as aloof. And it's true that the onetime journalist occasionally displays an odd sort of self-awareness, speaking about his experience in politics as though it's a social experiment. But for most of the campaign, he has tilted the other way.

If Stephen Harper has been cool through the campaign, refusing to let anything noticeably get under his skin, Mr. Ignatieff has been hot. There is a sort of righteous indignation to his fired-up sermons about the Conservatives' alleged mistreatment of democratic institutions, and there's no reason to believe it's faked.

The downside of this passion is that, as the campaign has worn on, Mr. Ignatieff has often just looked exasperated with his inability to get Canadians to share his anger.

2. He doesn't stick to the script

Mr. Ignatieff refuses to adhere to the modern political orthodoxy of message discipline. He doesn't use Teleprompters at most events, and tends to break into free-form monologues about the issues on his mind. Unlike Mr. Harper, he does not limit opportunities to ask him questions; unlike Jack Layton, he usually tries to answer each question directly, rather than returning to talking points.

The fact that Mr. Ignatieff is quick on his feet has prevented him from getting into too much trouble this way; even when publicly accosted by people who don't like him, he's avoided saying anything he might regret. But much as his campaign team has tried to make a virtue of his unpredictability, it's prevented him from driving home whatever the daily message is supposed to be. At times he seems eager to touch on every conceivable topic that might appeal to voters, leading to few themes getting much traction.

Oddly, it was a different version of Mr. Ignatieff that voters saw in the leaders' debates - particularly the English version - as he largely tried to speak in sound bites. It seemed unnatural, because it wasn't really him.

3. He likes the theatre of politics

Mr. Ignatieff visibly enjoys campaign rallies. Although he's slightly physically awkward, he's evidently comfortable being the centre of attention. And more than most modern politicians, he constantly speaks of encounters with Canadians along the campaign trail, using them to fashion narratives.

Throw in the lack of scripts, and it adds up to a somewhat old-fashioned campaign - an approach influenced, perhaps, by the fact that Jean Chrétien's former communications director is his chief of staff. To many journalists, it's been endearing. But in the information era, it doesn't seem to get through as easily to Canadians who aren't watching him in person.

4. He's tired of having to defend himself

Politics is a tough business, and its toll on Mr. Ignatieff is occasionally evident.

Since he took over the Liberal leadership, he's been subjected to Conservative attacks claiming he's an elitist dilettante who only came back to Canada for his own amusement. And when he visited The Globe and Mail's editorial board last week, Mr. Ignatieff seized on a question about why he entered politics to vent his frustration.

"It's my country," he said, pounding the table and then repeating himself. For an awkward moment, it appeared he might be overcome with emotion. Then he said he had grown tired of being a spectator abroad, complained about his motivations being questioned, and waited for the next question.

His defining moment

On April 15, at the end of a town hall meeting in Sudbury, Ont., Mr. Ignatieff suddenly began quoting Bruce Springsteen.

Mr. Harper, he lamented, had committed a litany of sins - contempt of Parliament, smearing a member of his own caucus, restricting public access to his own campaign events - and the public had only shrugged. Borrowing from Springsteen's album The Rising, he called upon Canadians to "rise up."

"Rise up! Rise up!" he commanded, drawing his audience to its feet. "This is not about the Liberal Party of Canada! This is about the country you love! So rise up, Canada."

His opponents tried to label it his Howard Dean moment. His handlers thought it was something else. They had him repeat the call over and over in the days that followed, and tried to make it a theme of the rest of the campaign.

It was, more than anything, the epitome of Mr. Ignatieff as a politician. Passionate. Unscripted. Theatrical. And more than a little frustrated with his difficulty getting Canadians to buy into what he's selling.