Michael Ignatieff: Patriotic Story-teller or Opportunistic Visitor?

A look at the Liberals’ ads extolling, and Conservative ads attacking, Michael Ignatieff shows that narrative features significantly in both. On the Liberal side, that is to be expected from a writer-politician whose output includes biographies, novels, and history. On the Conservative side, Ignatieff’s career as public intellectual provides an extensive public record from which to unearth embarrassing and contradictory material. Indeed, the campaign presents much more personal narrative about Ignatieff than about Harper, for whom even the Conservative narrative is confined to his five years as Prime Minister.

Ignatieff’s penchant for personal story-telling is evident in a recent Liberal ad. Narrated by Ignatieff, it starts with a photo of him with his elderly mother recounting that she died of Alzheimer’s disease and that “caring for her was the toughest thing that ever hit our family.” It then unveils the Liberal’s family care plan.

There are two earlier personal narratives – no longer election ads – on the Liberal web site (Liberal.ca). In the first, Ignatieff begins by talking about and showing photos of his father, who came to Canada in 1928 as a penniless immigrant from Russia, and who made his way up the ladder through his own efforts. Like the ad about the family care plan, Ignatieff generalizes from his personal story to the importance of hard work – on the immigrant’s part – and equal rights, as enshrined in the Charter, on our society’s part.

In the second, a longer ad entitled “Meet Michael,” he talks about his career (in implicit contrast to Stephen Harper) as a “self-employed writer without a safety net, living from paycheque to paycheque.” .He also talks about his marriage, showing that his wife Zsuzsanna Zsohar (in implicit contrast to Laureen Harper) both uses her own name and speaks in the ad. As in the other ads, he expands upon his own experience to talk about his “vision of the country in which we stand together through [difficulties]” and he refers to pensions, medical care, and education not in terms of the hackneyed safety net metaphor, but rather as “basic stuff, the granite under our feet.”

The Conservatives’ attack ads on Michael Ignatieff have been running almost since he became leader and are well known. The main theme, as epitomized by an ad entitled Arrogance (uploaded on YouTube by the Conservative Party on May 13, 2009) is that Ignatieff is an ambitious “cosmopolitan” who is “just in it for himself.” Indicative of Ignatieff’s lack of patriotism is a quote from Maclean’s on November 20, 2006 that “the only thing he missed about Canada [while away] was Algonquin Park.”

Though recent Conservative attack ads have shifted to Ignatieff’s policy proposals, they still build on the well established narrative of personal ambition. Thus, the latest starts by calling him “an opportunist who only came back to be prime minister,” and then shifts to the charges that Ignatieff will raise taxes and establish a reckless coalition that will include the Bloc Quebecois.

The Conservative ads are relentlessly historical in that every charge about Ignatieff’s current policy proposals is anchored to a quote drawn from past statements or interviews, with the source and date flashed on the screen. Whether or not these quotes are taken out of context, as the Liberals charge, is beside the point for the Conservatives. Presenting the paradox of an incumbent party running against the opposition leader’s record, the ads argue that Ignatieff is not a fresh new face, but is already well known and has been found wanting.

The Conservative attack ads apparently have established for both core Conservative voters and some swing voters the personal ambition/disastrous policy narrative I discussed in my post of March 7. Is this enough, however, to win an election? The Liberals have responded, appropriately, with the argument that the “just visiting” attack ads are a slur on both the two million Canadians who are now working internationally and the 20 percent of Canadians who were born outside Canada. Furthermore, the potential advantage for Liberals in the Conservative attack ads is that, by demonizing Ignatieff, they have lowered the expectations he has to meet. If in the campaign he can – especially in the debates next week – embody a sincere love of country, he might well confound the story the Conservatives have attempted to tell.

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