OTTAWA — Jean Chretien once offered to risk his neck bungee jumping in a bid to squelch persistent rumours of ill health that plagued him during his troubled tenure as official Opposition leader.
In the end, his communications director chose a somewhat less-daring way to demonstrate the Liberal leader’s physical vitality, setting up a pre-election photo opportunity of a robust Chretien water skiing.
History seems to be repeating itself.
Coming off a rocky first year as Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff finds himself fending off rumours that he’s depressed, exhausted, so worn down by the thankless grind of opposition politics that he’s ready to return to Harvard rather than face the ignominy of sure election defeat.
“Stamina? I got the stamina. I’ve been proving it all year, right?” the 62-year-old insisted during a year-end interview, recounting the punishing schedule he’s been keeping in recent days.
Ignatieff admits the Conservatives have gotten under his skin with their attack ads labelling him as an elitist carpetbagger who’s “just visiting” Canada after 30 years working abroad.
“I’m angry, let me put it that way, at the way I’ve been described by my opponents. I’m not visiting. This is my goddamn country. Get out of here,” he fumes.
“So some of that gets to you occasionally. But it doesn’t discourage me. I just think this isn’t serious.”
He admits it’s been a tough year for him but argues that’s hardly the point.
“Mostly, it’s been a tough year for Canadians. As for me, who cares? I mean really, really, who cares?”
As for his physical and mental well-being, Ignatieff says dismissively, “I feel good, actually. I feel fine.”
But don’t expect any bungee jumping — or water skiing, for that matter — to prove the point, even though Peter Donolo, the communications whiz who dreamed up the stunt for Chretien, is now Ignatieff’s chief of staff.
Rather, in the new year Ignatieff is resolved to show off muscle of a different sort — his brain power.
The internationally acclaimed academic, broadcaster and author of 17 books will try to position himself as the leader with the intellectual heft to prepare the country for an uncertain future in which “carbon has a price, fossil fuels are expensive, the dollar’s at par, the markets are in India and China, it’s brain power that matters and we’re all getting older.”
“Those are the rough parameters of the New World,” he says.
“Who’s getting us ready for that? These (Tory) guys govern for tomorrow morning.”
In the last couple of weeks before Parliament broke for an extended Christmas holiday, Ignatieff began, finally, to offer a glimpse of the kind of policies he’d pursue as prime minister, sketching out proposals on pension reform, carbon emission reduction, rural mail delivery and pay equity.
In the new year, he’ll embark on a gruelling cross-country series of townhall-style consultations, to culminate in March at a thinkers’ conference in Montreal that’s supposed help map out a Liberal route to Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.
Ignatieff’s no longer talking about waiting for an election to start unveiling the Liberal program. For that matter, he’s no longer talking about an election.
Recklessly threatening to defeat the government last fall with no credible justification backfired badly, sparking a free fall in support for the Liberal party and in Ignatieff’s popularity. The plunging poll numbers, in turn, ignited internal squabbling which wound up with the wholesale firing of Ignatieff’s inner circle.
Ignatieff swears he’s learned his lesson.
“What Canadians said to us very, very clearly was, ’We don’t want an election. . . . We’re in the middle of a recession, leave us alone, come back when you’ve got an alternative.’ ”
And that’s what he intends to do.
“We’re patiently assembling the alternative . . . When the time comes, it’ll be a clear shot.”
Harris-Decima pollster Allan Gregg thinks Ignatieff is on the right track — at last — and may yet turn Liberal fortunes around. Indeed, by year’s end, the Liberals had already rebounded slightly in the polls and had the government on the run over the Afghanistan detainee issue.
“I don’t think it is too late,” says Gregg.
But while he thinks emphasis on policy is the right prescription for what ails Liberals, Gregg predicts it will be an uphill struggle for Ignatieff — as for any opposition leader — to capture public interest, no matter how good his ideas.
“He’s kind of got to eat a live rat on stage in order to get you (media) guys’ attention.”
Or perhaps a little water skiing. Worked for Chretien after all, who rode his prowess at aquatic sports right into the Prime Minister’s Office.