The Hill: Different man in charge

Stéphane Dion used to tell the dullest jokes: “There was this dog named Paff. He crossed the street and a car came along. And ‘Paff’ went the dog.”

Nobody laughed. Dion kept telling the story over and over until one day the Liberal Party asked him to resign: “And Paff went Dion.”

Michael Ignatieff has a very different sense of humour. There is bite to it. In fact, a nasty streak. The tip-off comes when Ignatieff smiles that pasted-on, straight-mouth grin of his with the slit eyes and bouncing eyebrows looking like a heavy out of a James Bond film.

“We have ways of making you talk. . . .”
Ignatieff uses humour to evade embarrassing questions. Pierre Trudeau used to do that: “Mercedes: Do you mean the girl or the car?”

At a news conference last week, the press gallery got its first real look at “Ignatieff the Leader.”
Stephen Maher of the Halifax Chronicle Herald  asked how Ignatieff expected the Conservatives to frame him negatively, just as they framed and redefined Dion to destroy him.

“What, you want me to write the campaign for them?” Ignatieff shot back. Then he added ominously, “It would be a very, very serious mistake to engage in partisan attacks at this time. I hope I make myself clear.”

Don Newman of CBC News asked Ignatieff if he would agree, if asked, to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the Christmas holidays. Ignatieff avoided a straight answer by posing whether Newman expects him to leave his family over Christmas to be with Harper. They both laughed.

Actually, Ignatieff had already spoken to Harper, but he didn’t want to announce it publicly. The joke saved him having to reveal what Harper had asked or to what they had agreed. A joke saved the day.
Ignatieff is told the Conservatives are questioning his legitimacy as Liberal leader because he was not elected by the party rank-and-file.

He could easily defend himself by explaining the caucus selection process, or that 18 of the last 35 prime ministers in Great Britain were chosen by their caucus, but instead Ignatieff went on the attack.
“I don’t take lessons in legitimacy from someone who has lost the confidence of the House of Commons,” Ignatieff replied.

His answers were rich in imagery. He described Harper as a leader having to go back down the hill. (King of the Hill and all that.) “He must walk back down the hill.” (Harper is a guy who has trouble even admitting a mistake, never mind walking back down a hill.)

Harper will have to earn back the confidence of the Commons, Ignatieff says. Tough talk from a guy with only 76 MPs, who can defeat the government only with the help of two other parties.

When Ignatieff spun out the line, “A coalition  if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition,” people thought it was about backing away from the coalition. It had nothing to do with that.

Read the rest of the paragraph: “I am prepared to enter into a coalition if that is what the Governor General asks me to do.”

What? This guy is talking about throwing out the Harper government, and then considering the possibility of a coalition government . . . or an election. He isn’t backing away from anything. If anything, he is upping the stakes.
“I am really serious about voting against the government if there is no serious budget in the national interest,” he says.

Arrogance, unseen among Liberals since the Trudeau days.
Does he think a lot of himself? Consider his warning to Harper: “He must not doubt my calm, quiet determination.”

And the chances of the coalition lasting until Parliament reconvenes?
“No party can have the confidence of the country if it decides to vote now against a budget that it hasn’t seen yet,” said Ignatieff.

Sounds like a knock against Dion? Yes it is, but Dion is gone. The target is really NDP leader Jack Layton who has “already decided.” But in those words, at the same time, there’s an opening, if ever so small, for Harper to make peace.

There’s a stranger idiosyncratic side to Ignatieff, a florid, literary style, with dime-store novel imagery.
He begins waxing about the greatness of Western Canada, where he intends for the Liberals to make a breakthrough, praising the “entrepreneurial spirit” of westerners (is he talking about an old Saskatchewan grain farmer?) He wants to win back their votes.

Ignatieff is just getting started. Next it’s “the people in the beating economic heart of the country” (and you thought it was Toronto) and of the beauty of the “Big Sky” in Western Canada.
Isn’t it the same sky over Ontario, or did it shrink lately? One feels like saying, “Oh Michael, it’s bigger than both of us!”

He hopes people in Western Canada have “forgiven” the Liberals and forgotten what the Liberals did to them. Is he talking about the National Energy Policy or the Green Shift? Whatever. Mea culpa.

In any case he will be going from town to town, he promises, and just can’t wait for someone to invite him to the Brandon Fair. (Actually they do sell tickets.)

He says he sees his aides in the back of the hall wincing. He’s lucky they aren’t throwing up. Definitely a different man in charge.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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