Michael Ignatieff: an intellectual powerhouse in plain folks clothing

The author, Carrie Saxifrage, talks with the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff

The Town Hall at Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver opened with an aw-shucks biographical film portraying Michael Ignatieff as a populist political outsider connected to concerns of small businesses and families. The Liberal Party leader suggested that his work as a writer was very similar to running a small business and his experiences during his grandmother’s and mother’s deaths from Alzheimer’s brought home the need for Canadians to stick together. 

“No one should have to go through that alone,” he said. Ignatieff’s presence on stage was similarly compassionate, engaged and folksy.

Never mind that he is a world respected intellectual and political philosopher who has taught at the University of Toronto, Oxford, Harvard and the London School of Economics. Never mind that he studied with and wrote the biography of Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s most prominent political thinkers who brought rigorous analysis to liberal ideals. He apparently doesn’t want to put Canadians to the test that Americans often and famously fail, confusing intellectual power with elitism. Those who consider decades of analysis of political philosophy, international relations and nation building a more important qualification for Prime Minister than devotion to family need not worry. Ignatieff has both.

Ignatieff’s opening speech embodied liberal values civil rights and  liberties, the social safety net, religious tolerance and freedom, and free markets. Growing up, his family put a high value on “a society grounded in equality of opportunity with world class public goods funded out of general taxation, like reliable health care, pensions and post secondary education.” For Ignatieff, equality of opportunity in a society based on diversity of language, age and race has enabled and defined Canada’s success and the Harper government has significantly eroded these opportunities for the last five years.

Public Services

Many of the audience’s questions included criticisms of public services. Pensioners were concerned about whether the government would cover pensions following corporate bankruptcies such as Nortel; other elders wondered why the government didn’t facilitate low pharmaceutical prices through bulk purchases; one gentleman described difficulties coping with the discontinuance of disability pay at age 65 for his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife. Ignatieff listened carefully and assured the questioners that a Liberal government would expand the Canada Pension Plan, facilitate lower cost pharmaceuticals and pay for home care of loved ones.

A secondary school student asked how all this would be paid for. Ignatieff disparaged Harper’s proposed reduction of the corporate tax rate from 18% to 16%, stating the rate is already competitive with other jurisdictions and the cut will deprive the budget of money needed for public goods. He affirmed his commitment to reduce the debt which is “chewing through the budget” and the responsibility to pay it down to prevent the burden from falling on other generations.

In response to a university student concerned with the price, security and bandwidth of Canadian internet, Ignatieff endorsed an internet expansion similar to Australia’s in which the federal government ensures and, if necessary, funds access to rural and remote areas as a way to enhance economic opportunity.

A second student asked about the Liberal’s commitment to education. Ignatieff noted this is a primarily a matter of provincial jurisdiction, then stated that he would reinstate the early childhood education programs that were scrapped by the conservatives. He emphasized the importance of foreign and indigenous languages, and reducing student debt loads. “If you make the grades,” he asserted, “we provide the education.” He embraced non-university post secondary education, advocated for adult literacy programs and the importance of student time abroad.

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