Why Michael Ignatieff is glad he entered politics

Posted on September 21, 2013 in Governance Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – commentary
Sep. 21 2013.   Michael Ignatieff, Special to The Globe and Mail

People sometimes ask me whether, looking back now, I think my political career was a mistake. Given how it turned out, it’s a fair question.

No, it wasn’t a mistake. Regrets? Sure. Would I do it again? Of course, I would.

Yes, we lost it all in the end, and losing was brutal. But as I said on election night, failure is a great teacher. I’ve learned a few of its lessons: don’t complain, take responsibility for your mistakes and move on. I’ve moved on, gracefully, I hope.

But I am also concerned. And I wish more of you were, too.

Now that I’m out of the game and travel to countries where democracy is beset by violence and corruption, I come home increasingly worried that people in politics are weakening the democratic faith of Canadians by assailing it with petty venality and cheap partisanship.

And it gets worse. With negative attack ads degrading public discourse, prorogation becoming the new normal, parliamentary committees losing the independence they need, dumpster bills being rammed through Parliament without allowing MPs to catch government mistakes, a slow-motion experiment is being conducted with our democracy. Like the frog in the pot on the stove, we may not realize that we’re cooked until it’s too late.

I’ll admit I didn’t do as much as I could have done to reverse this trend. I was as partisan as the rest of them. I was aware of good people on the other side of the aisle in other parties, but we never got to know each other. It was one team against the other, and we scrapped in Question Period like ferrets in a sack. For those of us in the Commons chamber, the aggression was normal. For the people who came from across the country to watch us from up in the gallery – and they told me this – it was a disillusioning spectacle.

But for all the shouting in the House, I never forgot that this was the chamber where politicians from all parties voted for the Canada Health Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, more recently, gay marriage; where, for all the cheap shots of daily politics, our democracy has proved its worth time and time again.

We can’t let our Parliament become an empty charade, because if that’s where we’re headed, one day we might not be able to come back. Canadians must not let their Parliament fail them. If we fail to demand more, we risk having fewer and fewer young people dreaming of running for office, of making speeches in the chamber, of being prime minister. Democracy’s future depends on making sure these ambitions settle early in young minds, leading them to that great moment when they enter the arena.

I’m done with active politics, but I’m not done trying to encourage people to get in the game. Those of us who have stood for office should always be training up people to come after us. We should be looking out for the ones who want to step forward, to get up in front of a crowd with a microphone in their hand and tell the people a story about their city, province or country that will make others follow them in the search to make life better for others.

For someone like me who, as a kid, walked to school muttering little political speeches to myself, it was irresistible to finally get a chance at political life for real. When the people of Etobicoke-Lakeshore elected me their MP, it changed me forever. I had to learn the basic discipline of democracy: to speak not just for yourself, but for the party and the people who put you there.

I had no inkling of how crazy the political life would turn out to be. You shuttle between your constituency and Ottawa, you try to make every barbecue, festival, parade and charity run, but sometimes you feel pulled in 14 directions at once.

All this frantic business is there for a reason, though: to narrow that gap between politicians and the people – the gap that cynicism and partisanship keep widening.

These days, I encourage my students to enter the arena, but I warn them not to think of politics as a profession. There’s no job security, and there aren’t professional standards like there are for lawyers and doctors. Anything goes in politics and the winners write the rules.

The way we commonly talk about politics does it no favours. Politics isn’t a reality show or a gong show. It’s not show business for ugly people. It’s the arena where we define our common life in a rough and ready contest that has winners and losers. Failure goes with the territory. The vast majority of the people who put their name on a ballot end up losing, and we should be grateful, frankly, that new candidates keep stepping forward, in all parties, to earn a place in Parliament.

I urge students to think of politics as a calling. Sure, I was in it for myself. Sure, I wanted to be prime minister. But I also knew that this crazy life made no sense – the relentless travel, the dawn-to-daylight schedule, the battering from your opponents, the sniping from the media – unless I saw it as a calling, a way of life spent serving that absent and capricious god, the Canadian people.

Eventually, the people sent us packing, but I still think my party and I did our best to serve them. We fought to make our government accountable; to make Parliament work the way it should; to give Canadians a decent and responsible alternative to the mean rancour of the current regime. I fought to convince my fellow citizens that, no, I wasn’t just visiting.

I teach students that what people say about failure in politics is mostly wrong. People always told me, “They’ll praise you on your way up and kick you on your way down.” That wasn’t my experience. I can’t walk down the street in Toronto without someone coming up and saying hello. They didn’t necessarily vote for me, but they seem glad to see me. My experience since losing confirms me in the basic feeling that, while some of my opponents were rough and the press could be lazy, the people were all right.

I also try to dispel the cliché that politics is all about treachery and betrayal. I saw some of that, and I wasn’t always faithful to others, though I tried to be, but what strikes me most, looking back, was just how loyal people were. Most of the rank and file of politics don’t get more in the way of reward than a cellphone picture taken with their candidate or leader. Yet I learned just how many stuck with us through thick and thin. With me, it was mostly thin, but they were there till the end, and many of them remain friends to this day.

I’ll always be glad I came down from the stands and got into the arena to do battle. I know that there are still lots of young Canadians out there – and they aren’t all in my party – who feel the same fire I feel, who want to stride up to the stage and start moving their fellow citizens towards a new vision of our common life. I didn’t get there, but I know there is someone out there, perhaps reading this, who will.

Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics is published next week.

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