Michael Ignatieff descended on Montreal for a three-day conference aimed at reimagining the character of the Liberal Party last weekend. The conference, called Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge, was publicized as a non-partisan event, but from the beginning functioned as a forum for Liberals to establish a working platform for the next federal election. Former prime ministers, newspaper columnists, university professors, and bankers joined Ignatieff at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to discuss public policy ideas, both old and new. The entrance fee for the conference stood at $695 a head, although banks of computers were also set up to receive Skype comments and instant blogging from across the country. Ignatieff talked to The Daily hours before delivering his final speech on Sunday evening, discussing prorogation and environmental policy, Israeli Apartheid Week, the niqab ban, and his plans for a future Liberal government.
The McGill Daily: You’ve said that new Liberal governance will mean “getting a network of deciders together to face common problems.” That seems like the function of any government. In what way is your view of Liberal governance unique?
Michael Ignatieff: I think it is different from command-and-control, and top-down, and exclusive and obsessional focus on jurisdiction and the constitution. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: no federal government in its right mind wants to interfere in provincial jurisdictions, especially not Quebec. And it’s not fancy – but we can’t go to Copenhagen with provincial governments in open dispute. Getting networks of responsibility is no more complicated or fancy than calling the key stakeholders nine months out and saying, “We’ve got a conference here: why don’t we make sure Canada speaks not with one voice, but with a coherent voice.” I’m not so naive to believe – or I’m not so naive to forget – that provincial governments often take very different policies on key environmental and energy questions. But at least we can keep [ourselves] from exporting our quarrels, and get a few common positions that we can agree on. The point here is, then you can leverage each others’ influence instead of diminishing each others’ influence.
MD: Given the chance to form a government, would you impose a carbon tax – a position for which most policymakers have advocated?
MI: The straight answer is no. I’ve made another fiscal proposal, which is to push the pause button on corporate tax reductions, which we think will give us the fiscal room to incentivize green technology and clean technology and energy efficiency. We think that’s a better approach.
MD: You’ve made it a top priority to extend political participation to young Canadians at this conference. What have you done in this regard that distinguishes you from the Harper government?
MI: Well, no other political party has ever had such intense and widespread interest in political involvement as an issue in Canadian politics – I think that’s just a fact. We had participation from 25 countries outside of Canada and from 70 communities in Canada, from Whitehorse in the west of the country to Fredericton in the east of the country. So these are very active, lively discussions that went on for often days at a time, in often remote parts of the country. When you look at the Skype feed, it was clear that this was being driven by mostly young Canadians. And I think we’ve made more successful use of the new technologies than any other party. I’d like to claim credit for that, but it’s basically the young people within the party itself who are driving this, and they’re doing a wonderful job. They’re changing the way citizens can connect in Canadian politics, and it’s good.
MD: If you were given the chance to form a government, would you introduce legislation making it more difficult to prorogue Parliament and what measures would be in the legislation to make it effective?
MI: Yes, we would introduce legislation to limit the power to prorogue. And we’ve put forward some specific suggestions a couple of months ago to limit prorogation power. Because I think that this is about maintaining the right balance between prime ministerial power and parliamentary power. And we think that the prime minister’s almost unlimited prerogative should be limited, in the sense that you can’t prorogue twice in a year, the way we’ve seen; you can’t prorogue to avoid a vote of non-confidence; you can’t interrupt the sitting of parliamentary committees. Those are three areas where we felt limitations could be reasonably imposed.
MD: You’ve said that the Charest government’s introduction of a law banning the niqab for women using public services constitutes a ‘good Canadian balance.’ It’s been suggested that this law would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is as Canadian as it gets. Do you think the law would violate the Charter?
MI: If there is a Charter challenge, you know, the courts will have to rule. My sense is that these things involve a balance. Accomodement raisonable means reasonableness on both sides. That means the receiving society should reach out to people of different faiths and different customs. And on the other side, people of different faiths should recognize the equality of women, and the right of the state to say if you want access to certain services there are certain rules of the road you should follow. There’s a balance Quebec is trying to establish here that I think is appropriate. But I want to say what I’ve also said on this from the beginning, which is that Islam has many faces in Canada, and Islam has been part of this country for a very long time…at least a hundred years. And these are neighbours, our friends, and our fellow citizens.
MD: You’ve criticized the Harper government and stood behind aboriginal groups that have had their funding axed recently, such as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the First Nations University of Canada. Would you reinstate funding to these groups? What is your overall vision for your government’s relationship with First Nations?
MI: Well, we have to close the gap in funding for aboriginal education, and specifically we have to lift the cap on growth in funding for aboriginal post-secondary [education]. Those are specific commitments that we’ve made, that we make. And I believe the federal government should restore funding to First Nations University, and we feel the Aboriginal Healing Foundation is a good works institution that should continue to receive support. You know, I’m optimistic about the future of aboriginal people in this country, but so much of my optimism turns on getting them some of the best darn education in the world.
MD: In 2002 you wrote in the Guardian that Israeli settlement policy was creating Bantustans, and resembled South Africa during apartheid, as well as the Crusades and French colonization in Algeria. Lately you’ve condemned Israeli Apartheid Week in no uncertain terms. What made you change your mind?
MI: With the greatest respect, a close reading of that Guardian piece would make it clear that I never compared, nor would I ever compare, Israel to South Africa. Israel has its problems, but it’s important as a matter of public record that I’ve never compared Israel to South Africa during apartheid. And I’ve always said that Israeli Apartheid Week is an inappropriate way, to say the least, to discuss the Middle East on campuses. What I said in the Guardian piece is that I believe Israel’s security depends, ultimately, on there being a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. The issue is viability. I’m a strong believer in a two-state solution, not only because I believe that Palestinians have rights that must be recognized, but I also believe that a viable Palestinian state is the best ultimate and long-term [solution for] the security of the state of Israel.
MD: Your party defeated its own motion regarding abortion in the Harper government’s maternal health initiative for the G8. Will you be able to create a united party line on the importance of abortion as a form of contraception, especially as it pertains to aid in the developing world?
MI: I think the Liberal Party is united on the absolute importance of providing a full range of reproductive health services to women, which means contraception, family planning, birth spacing. And there are members of our caucus who do not want that comprehensive approach to reproductive health services to include termination of pregnancy. And I respect their view, but the position of the party, and it would be the position of the party in government, is that Canada should provide the same, full range of reproductive health services to women. And let me be very clear: the party believes, and I believe, that abortion should be rare as [a form of] contraception, [a result of] good family planning. It should be available to women when it is medically necessary. These are controversial subjects and arouse very strong feelings, and I respect the moral feelings that are at play on this issue. But I think I have made the party’s position – which has been the Canadian position for 25 years – clear. And it seems to me that the Harper government is walking away from a position that has been our country’s position for a very long time.
—compiled by Eric Andrew-Gee