In the suite of Parliament Hill offices reserved for the leader of the official Opposition, a scrap of paper on a receptionist's desk one day last week seemed to have drifted ashore from a previous era. The name scrawled on it in blue ballpoint - Jim Coutts. In case you're rusty on Liberal lore, Coutts was a legendary aide to prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. His name hasn't been heard much in federal power circles for years, except as a historical reference point. But when Michael Ignatieff was crafting his response to the Jan. 27 Conservative budget, his principal secretary, Ian Davey, telephoned Coutts, who lives in Toronto but was vacationing in Wales, to ask a past master's opinion. Thus the scribbled note logging the call.
There is something telling about Coutts being back in the loop at age 70. The connection is first a family one: Ian Davey is son of Keith Davey, the former senator and equally storied Liberal strategist of the Pearson and Trudeau decades. As Ignatieff's closest adviser, the younger Davey, 51, is steeped in the party's history; yet he is also an outsider who worked most of his adult life in Toronto as a TV and documentary film producer, and was, until very recently, mostly detached from Ottawa's intricate Liberal culture. The operation he has pulled together in a scant few weeks mixes interlopers, like him, attracted by Ignatieff, with old Hill hands. "We had a group of people who understood how Michael operated, how Michael worked, what he looked for," Davey told Maclean's, "and we created an overlay of people with strong Ottawa experience."
From his corner office in the suite on the fourth floor of Parliament's Centre Block, where Ignatieff's crew is only just settling in, Davey enjoys a view of the East Block, and can pick out the window of his father's former digs as a senator. Like Davey, Ignatieff is also a hybrid - an outsider with insider genes. He made his name as an author in Britain and the U.S., but his diplomat father was enmeshed in Ottawa elite circles. So a shared sense of inherited purpose and personal detachment defines Ignatieff and Davey. But that sort of chemistry doesn't count for much in, say, the post-question period scrums. What's noteworthy is how, with so little hands-on experience, and even less time to prepare, the new Liberal leader managed to not mess up his first big test - reacting to the Tory budget.
Prep time for that exam was extraordinarily tight. Typically, the new leader of a major party would assign a transition team to manage taking over from his predecessor. Davey put one in place for Ignatieff back in 2006, when he was the front-runner going into the Liberal leadership convention, but lost to Stéphane Dion. A similar transition would have been planned for next May's convention. Instead, after the crisis in Parliament late last year, Dion stepped down abruptly, and then Ignatieff's leadership rivals dropped out, letting him take over the party in an uncontested stroke. Rather than orchestrating an orderly ascent, Davey was left scrambling to assemble a staff. The return of the House and the crucial Jan. 27 budget allowed little margin for early errors. Ignatieff had to decide what to do about the controversial coalition deal Dion had struck with the NDP's Jack Layton, supported by the Bloc Québécois, to potentially defeat Stephen Harper's minority.
Ignatieff's handling of the budget offered the first clear glimpse into his style of leadership. Its main elements were a methodical advance communications strategy, a disciplined bid to keep jittery Liberal MPs in check, and finally a cautious, almost minimalist, reaction to the budget itself, which allowed him to avoid a risky head-on collision with Harper's Conservatives. He seemed to be guided throughout by a reading of the public-opinion environment, rather than any preoccupation with the volatile microclimate of parties and personalities on Parliament Hill. "Canadians don't want another election, and they're tired of political games," he said, the day after the budget. "They have waited too long for action on the economy for us to fail them now because of partisan interest."
His pre-budget road show alone was a minor triumph - and an improbable one, considering how hurriedly it was organized. When Ignatieff found himself leader in December, he was about to step away from politics to finish a book about his mother's family over the Christmas break. Inexplicably, in the eyes of many Liberal insiders watching for the new leader to take charge, he stuck to that plan. Even more surprising was the lack of any clear signs of action from Davey during Ignatieff's absence. Some party veterans guessed that decisions were being made quietly. In fact, few were. Davey and Paul Zed, who was finally brought aboard in the first week of January to serve as interim chief of staff, said recruiting to fill key jobs only really began in earnest after Jan. 2. New faces continue to pop up in Ignatieff's entourage, like the addition a few days ago of former MP Don Boudria, once Jean Chrétien's House leader, who brings fine-grained knowledge of parliamentary procedure and tactics.
Zed is an outgoing former MP, who won New Brunswick ridings in 1993 and 2004 and 2006, but lost in 1997 and 2008. Before that, he apprenticed as an aide to the previous generation's East Coast Liberal heavyweights, notably Romeo LeBlanc. Unlike Davey, he views Ottawa as "a bit of my hood." But Ignatieff's top two staffers are old friends. Zed and Davey met 15 years ago, serving together on the board of the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific - introduced by none other than Coutts, a leading supporter of the Vancouver Island school. Zed describes he and Davey as "yin and yang," Zed focusing on "process nuts and bolts" and Davey handling the "big picture."
The budget obstacle course posed challenges on both fronts. When he returned from book writing, Ignatieff needed to remind Canadians there was a new Liberal leader. In a quickly organized cross-country blitz, he bounced from a Halifax town hall-style meeting, to a Toronto business luncheon, to a Vancouver pub night, to a Calgary editorial board, to a Montreal meeting with union bosses. Taken together, the tour was remarkably trouble-free, especially considering Ignatieff's not-infrequent verbal slip-ups during his 2006 leadership run.
No matter the setting, Ignatieff often tried to boil down the complex economic issues of the day to down-to-earth examples. As the author of books on foreign policy, human rights, and world trouble spots - not to mention a former Oxford fellow and Harvard professor - he carried an intellectual image into politics. Evidently concerned not to seem out of touch, he took pains to express empathy for Canadians hurt directly by the slumping economy. "It's not just that you lose your job," he said in Halifax, citing a shut-down Nova Scotia wallboard plant, "you've got a son who's got diabetes, has substantial medical costs. You can only meet those costs if you're on a company health plan, right? It's not just that you're worried about your job, you're worried about stuff you've never had to worry about before."
Ignatieff's concern with keeping the message grounded is echoed frequently by his senior staff. "It doesn't matter if you're selling ice cream or selling a message in politics of hope and change," Zed said. "You need to have it communicated in simple language." Asked to describe the sort of operation he's trying to create, Davey also stresses straight talk, both to Canadians and his own MPs. "Decisions are measured, decisions are clear, language is simple and direct," he said. "People look and go, 'I understand why they did that, I understand what they're doing, I understand where they're going.' "
A senior Liberal MP, asking not to be named, said Ignatieff has so far used his knack for clearly explaining his position more to calm down his troops, rather than stir them up. He did it during a dramatic caucus meeting during last December's crisis in Parliament, silencing Liberal MPs by talking about the pitfalls of their coalition with the NDP, just after his rival, Bob Rae, had roused them to cheer by touting its advantages. Rae's tack might have briefly raised Liberal spirits, but he was soon bowing out of the leadership race for lack of support among party insiders.
Ignatieff's pre-budget performances garnered solidly positive reviews. Even when he's on, however, he's not exactly a natural stump speaker. After decades as a writer used to watching and analyzing, rather than just doing, he sometimes talks as though he's observing himself, almost like the subject of his next essay. After a busy day in Montreal, for example, he didn't wait for others to assess how he'd performed - he summed it up himself for a Montreal Gazette reporter. "I think my approach was on display today," he said. "I go into rooms, starting the day with les patrons, the big employers, and they ask me tough questions I do my best to answer. I then go to a meeting with the labour unions and have a very direct and frank discussion with their leaders, and then I go in front of 350 of the best and brightest [university students], no safety net, and take any question that comes."
If Ignatieff is acutely self-conscious, he takes pains not to come across as egotistical. Toward Liberal MPs, he's been presenting himself, at every turn, as a leader ready to listen. He dined with his Newfoundland MPs this week, hearing them out before granting rare permission to vote against the budget, and against the Liberal line, to protest cuts to equalization payments to their province. Zed said his own experience in what was often a fractious Liberal caucus left him with a strong sense of the need for "transparency" from the leader and "openness" toward MPs' views. Davey said Ignatieff's relationship with MPs will only improve as they realize he wants them to share the spotlight, unlike Harper, whom Davey accuses of running a one-man show. "The difference is we're going to build a front bench," he said, "and we're going to build stars in this party."
But collegiality can only go so far. Ultimately, leaders have to make hard decisions and wear them. Ignatieff signalled well in advance his reluctance to fell Harper's minority over the budget, which would have forced an election or brought the unprecedented Liberal-NDP coalition to power. Still, he kept his options open. After a tense evening Liberal caucus meeting on budget day, his MPs weren't sure what he would do. The next morning, he announced he was letting the budget pass, on condition the Tories agree to report back at regular intervals on implementing its measures. "We're putting this government on probation," was his most widely quoted line.
That sounded tough enough. Yet by not demanding any hard changes in his budget amendment, Ignatieff made it easy for the Tories to play along. "The amendment just states the obvious," said government House leader Jay Hill, "so we're very pleased to comply with it as we move forward." Showdown postponed. Ignatieff followed up by lowering the temperature in the House. At the start of each question period, he asked a cluster of policy questions, all devoid of personal attacks on the Prime Minister. How fast would infrastructure funding flow? Why not consult with provinces about equalization? What was the government doing about U.S. protectionism?
By recent standards of House decorum, or lack of it, Ignatieff was letting Harper off easy. But his team argued he was test-driving a style they hope will gradually win over Canadians weary of acid partisanship. "The tone of Parliament is changing and Michael Ignatieff is leading that tone change," said Zed. For the Liberals, though, timing is a key issue. In their dreams, Ignatieff and his brain trust would let the Conservatives govern long enough to take the blame for the recession, then force an election just as the economy is set to rebound. But triggering the next campaign so precisely would require uncanny luck as much as sound planning.
More within Ignatieff's control is rebuilding and reorganizing neglected parts of his party's operations, to be ready whenever Harper's minority crumbles. His new national director, Rocco Rossi, former head of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, carries high expectations as he tries to ramp up limp Liberal fundraising. Ignatieff has hired Maurice Rioux, a veteran Liberal operative who was most recently the New Brunswick government's representative in Ottawa, to reach out to francophone ridings, both in Quebec and beyond. Davey has ordered a streamlining of the Liberal organization chart, ending the old practice of separating the leader's office operations from the party's research branch.
So behind Ignatieff's poised, low-impact public start as leader, a more frenetic retooling of the Liberal machine has begun. And his carefully calibrated early performance makes sense if that ambitious overhaul is viewed as barely under way. After all, Ignatieff can't risk a decisive clash with the Tories until his party is seriously ready to bid again for power. That a fresh start is long overdue isn't a new insight. Four years ago, Jim Coutts wrote about the need to rejuvenate the badly neglected party. He had hoped it would happen under Paul Martin. It didn't. Now it looks like Coutts will be able to keep closer tabs as another leader, and the latest aspirants to his old status as a vaunted insider, try to restore the Liberal banner's faded glory.
Maclean's February 16, 2009