Reacting to a somewhat surprisingly high turnout for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s appearance at the University of Calgary Jan. 14, a member of the audience suggested simple curiousity was a big factor. “Harper’s a known entity,” he observed, and he’s right. Whether or not they like him, it’s hard to imagine most Canadians with any interest in politics don’t have some sense of what kind of politician he is and what his priorities are. In contrast Ignatieff, still relatively new to his job and not having faced an election as leader yet, remains something of an enigma.
Did he answer all the questions the audience might thus have had about him? No. Oddly enough, though, this shows he’s become more comfortable as a politician. He didn’t offer any lines to stop the presses, but he didn’t make any gaffes either. He seemed knowledgeable and friendly. For people who didn’t already have a strong opinion on him, it’s unlikely they came away with an overwhelmingly negative one.
But Ignatieff, of course, has loftier goals than that. He wants to get more young people to vote, and ideally, as he acknowledged, to vote for the Liberals. Prorogation has clearly energized his base, but it doesn’t yet seem to have drawn in many supporters of other parties. Ignatieff’s success in the next election, therefore, may well hinge on newcomers to the polls.
To this end, he talked a good game. He was adamant but not defensive on his much-debated lengthy absence from Canada, he was articulate but not too detailed on issues such as the environment and taxation, and he took on the Tories’ perceived missteps without seeming overly partisan. It’s an approach that might have won him a few converts. As another spectator observed to a friend, “He’s way better than Stephane Dion.”
Unsurprisingly, Ignatieff lavished praise upon his mostly youthful audience, saying it was “a great opportunity to talk about the future with the future.” But he also gave a shout-out to the 180,000 plus members of “Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament,” a Facebook group Industry Minister Tony Clement dismissed as a “blip.” Clement was half-right. At present, the prorogation controversy seems to be resonating with some Canadians in a way past actions by the Tories haven’t. But the Facebook group itself is indeed a “blip.” Joining it requires virtually no time or thought, and even over a million members wouldn’t guarantee those people casting ballots for the Liberals – or indeed anyone – come election day. It certainly isn’t proof, as Ignatieff argued, that “everyone knows what prorogation means.”
Prorogation, for that matter, will eventually have to compete for air time with other issues. It will face the Olympics in February and the budget in March, and the furor will likely lessen some as a result. Ignatieff will have to find another issue to rail against the Tories on, but the budget will be a harder one. Oppose it and he risks bringing on an unwanted election, support it and he may be seen as weak.
This isn’t to say Ignatieff has no chance of building on his support. On the campaign trail – which he essentially is right now – he’s no Barack Obama, but he still shows more passion than Stephen Harper. It’s hard to predict how many young voters Ignatieff might sway, but as Obama showed, youth can be a powerful force if harnessed.
“We hope this is not the end of your involvement, but the beginning,” a member of the Young Liberals told the crowd at the end of his leader’s speech. No doubt Ignatieff hopes so even more.