Armchair Mayor column in Kamloops Daily News, March 28, 2009
“Have you met Michael?” Donna Marchand asked me as Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s town hall-style meeting was breaking up at Forster’s on Thursday.
I was working my way out of the ballroom when she saw me and came over for a chat. That morning, Ignatieff had paid a call to the Marchand’s Sahali home for a one-on-one meeting with Donna’s husband Len, our revered former MP and senator.
It was a respectful thing for the new Liberal leader to do during the few hours he spent in Kamloops on his third visit here. Ignatieff’s wife Zsuzanna Zsohar went with him, and the Ignatieffs and Marchands hit it off right away.
So now, Donna — who is one of the nicest people imaginable — is taking me by the arm and pulling me to the front of the ballroom where Ignatieff is surrounded by admirers and having his picture taken. Besides which, there’s a lineup of people patiently waiting to meet him.
Mrs. Ignatieff spies Donna and leaves the throng to talk to her. Upon which Donna explains she’s trying to get the leader’s attention so she can introduce me. ‘Nuff said, Zsohar plunges back into the crowd, turns Ignatieff around, and pulls him the few steps to where we’re standing.
And that’s how I met the (officially interim but soon to be confirmed) new Liberal leader and the man many people think is going to be the next prime minister.
And he may well be. When he talked to the packed room (I counted about 350 people but others estimate as high as 600 — either way, an impressive turnout for a party that hasn’t elected an MP in this riding for about 30 years), Ignatieff did several things just right.
For one, he looked casual in a dark red sweater, but not dorky the way some politicians do when they try to dress down. The sweater-look fit his low-key style of delivery for the day.
He even complimented a couple of prominent Conservatives, the late Kamloops MP Davie Fulton and former cabinet minister Flora McDonald.
“I don’t want to be super partisan,” he said at one point. “I don’t think the other guys have two horns and a tale.” An interesting comment, and one not often heard from a politician. It sounded, well, prime ministerial, which is something this country hasn’t had in awhile.
Some people are comparing him to Pierre Trudeau as the guy who’s going to capture the imagination of the country and lead the Liberals back to power.
Ignatieff doesn’t have the arrogant charisma of Trudeau; he’s certainly self-assured, but his style is much less edgy, more approachable. With his impressive list of credentials and his obvious intellect, Ignatieff might be prone to talking above his audience, but he didn’t do that.
In his short opening remarks, he began by paying a compliment to the Big Boot Inn, the Victoria Street shoe store he’d visited. Back in the crowd, owner Frank Digeso was beaming.
The Liberal leader showed he knew something about what’s going on here when he referred to a new law school coming to TRU.
No doubt, not everyone in the room was a Liberal, and when the questions got underway they weren’t all of the softball variety, but they were respectful and genuine, covering a lot of ground — the GST, Canadian sovereignty, the CBC, student debt, human rights.
On a couple of occasions, he admitted he didn’t have a full answer, at least not yet.
The last question came from Daily News reporter Mike Youds, and it was on the carbon tax. Youds, of course, had written a story for that day’s paper on a plan by the Conservatives to manufacture a protest against the Ignatieff visit, with placards blasting him for supporting a carbon tax.
But, in response to Youds’ question, Ignatieff made it abundantly clear the old Green Shift carbon tax proposal of predecessor Stephane Dion is no longer in play.
A carbon tax during a recession, he said, “would slow down and choke off recovery.” Besides, he added, the public left no doubt it didn’t like Dion’s carbon tax and it would be political suicide to keep it on the table. “I’m trying to get myself elected here.”
Meanwhile, the anti-Ignatieff protest proposed by B.C. Conservative organizer John Buckham in an email to the Kamloops riding executive never materialized.
Buckham’s suggestions for placards would have given the impression Ignatieff backs a tax at the pump similar to the Gordon Campbell tax. (By the way, the Conservative Party of Canada’s home page features a headline, over top a picture of Ignatieff and Dion, that says “Ignatieff can’t run from carbon tax.”)
Buckham even provided instructions on how to make the signs — “Put two (placards) together on a paint stirrer from a hardware store and you have a pretty good sign to wave.”
Among the suggested slogans, “Please don’t tax me twice,” “Welcome to B.C., Iggy, we already have a carbon tax,” and “Ignatieff = double carbon tax.”
Womping up rallies by email would seem to be an MO for Mr. Buckham. A couple of years ago, Buckham emailed party members in the Lower Mainland to show up at a Vancouver Board of Trade function to counter a protest by the Campaign to de-Elect David Emerson.
The email asked the faithful to assemble at the corner of Georgia and Burrard Streets at 11 a.m. and added, “hand written signs would be a great addition to the day, not only do they show up well for those who are across the street wondering what is going on but they also provide a great opportunity to get our message of support to the media.”
Among Buckham’s suggested slogans, “United we stand” and “Emerson = Courage.” Apparently he’s partial to the = sign on placards.
At 11 a.m., at the corner of Georgia and Burrard, one Tory supporter showed up and left after 10 minutes, which is one protester more than showed up at the Ignatieff event this week.
Buckham is not returning phone, which is understandable, since Buckham should be embarrassed.
Ryan sparrow, the media guy for the Conservative party in Ottawa, did return my call. While not wanting to comment on specifics, he did say “we don’t normally do that.” He added that Ignatieff “has to be held to account for what he said in the past on the carbon tax.”
Politics is a dirty game, but faking public protests against the other party’s leader is on a par with defecating puffins. Fortunately, the local Conservative executive has a little more class than that and wisely ignored Buckham’s advice.