I knew Michael Ignatieff was committing political suicide when I read he was planning to bring down Canada’s Conservative government in a vote of non-confidence and force an election. Ignatieff’s Liberals were behind Stephen Harper’s Tories by double digits in the polls and a majority of Canadians did not want another election. Here is some of what I wrote on the morning of March 25, 2011 only hours before Ignatieff forced Canada’s fourth election since 2004:
Now I could understand Ignatieff doing this if the Liberals were up in the polls by double digits and if he was the most popular leader in the country. But it seems to me that if half of all Canadians don't want an election a lot of them aren't going to vote Liberal. Now I realize that a week in politics is a lifetime. Harper could make a mistake and Ignatieff could capitalize. But unless Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister in the next 60 days or so then his political career is done.
Later that day, Ignatieff and the other opposition parties brought down the Tory government and an election was called for May 2. It would be Ignatieff’s last act as Leader of the Official Opposition. Thirty-eight days later, Ignatieff’s political career was done. The Conservatives gained 23 seats, which was enough to give Harper a majority government in the House of Commons. Conversely, the Liberals lost 43 seats and were reduced to 34 seats. The socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Jack Layton (who would be dead of cancer only months later) would supplant the Liberals as the Official Opposition. It was the worst electoral showing for the Liberals, once considered Canada’s natural governing party. Ignatieff lost his Toronto area seat and promptly resigned the Liberal Party leadership.
Although I knew that Ignatieff had committed political suicide, I didn’t know why. So I was delighted to hear that Ignatieff had written a book about his experience in Canadian politics titled Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,which was published by Harvard University Press in November 2013.
I learned several things from Fire and Ashes. First, I learned why Ignatieff to give up a comfortable teaching career at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to return to Canada and enter electoral politics. Second, I learned about his time as a national youth organizer for Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 campaign for the Liberal Party leadership. Third, I learned how much Ignatieff really dislikes Stephen Harper. Among other things, Ignatieff describes Harper as “one of life’s natural dominators,” as having “ruthlessness in spades,” and as being a “transactional opportunist.” What exactly a transactional opportunist is, I cannot say.
What I did not learn was what possessed Ignatieff to force an election he could not win and that the Canadian people did not want. I should mention that Ignatieff became Liberal Party leader following a poor showing by his predecessor Stéphane Dion in the 2008 election. For more than two years, Ignatieff and the Liberals propped up the Conservative minority government but had been increasingly losing patience with Harper. Ignatieff writes:
By early 2011, the Conservative government’s new budget was looming and it was becoming apparent that voting to sustain the government in office had become impossible. Twice the Speaker had sanctioned the government for contempt of Parliament, and unprecedented event in the history of our country. To roll over and pass the next budget would have been an act of appeasement. There would have to be an election, whether or not it was the right time for us.
Ignatieff might have very well realized he was committing political suicide. But what about his staff, his fellow Liberal MPs, or Liberal Party donors? Did anyone tell Ignatieff that forcing an election was a really bad idea?
So I put that question directly to Ignatieff during an appearance to promote Fire and Ashes at the Harvard Book Store last week.
Ignatieff began his reply by engaging in some levity telling the audience that no knowledge of Canadian politics was required to read his book. He acknowledged that the Liberals were behind in the polls and that he was “not that particularly popular.” But Ignatieff reiterated that he could not support the Tories “socially reactionary budget” and continue to prop up a government that was twice in contempt of Parliament. It should be noted that in Fire and Ashes, Ignatieff acknowledges that contempt of Parliament did not “arouse the patriotic ire of citizens” as he had hoped. Ignatieff told us the situation “left me with a bad choice, which is to go and have an election I know is going to be tough for me to win.”
Well, Ignatieff did learn a thing or two during his time in politics — he didn’t answer my question. So after the event, I approached Ignatieff and asked him if anyone in the Liberal Party thought his decision to bring down the Tory government was a bad idea. He was reluctant to answer the question until I told him he didn’t have to name names. With that out of the way, Ignatieff told me that no one in the Liberal Party opposed his bringing down the Tories. He said the Liberal Party was determined “to get Stephen Harper out of office.” Alas, the Canadian electorate did not share Ignatieff and the Liberals’ determination.
In Fire and Ashes, Ignatieff writes:
Politics test your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know. What I learned is this: the question about why you want to be a politician is a question about whom you want it for. In my case, whom did I want it for?
The fact that Ignatieff would force an election “to get Stephen Harper out of office” against the wishes of Canadians tells us why he wanted to be a politician. It also tells us why he has not learned from failure.