Liberal Express: The story so far
I’ve now finished my third and final stint aboard the Liberal Express; Michael Ignatieff’s summer-long tour of Canada. Unless another reporter decides to spend 10 days aboard the bus next month, I guess I can boast (?) that I’ve given it the longest look of anyone in the media.
First of all, I should probably say why I spent so much time there. One of my jobs at the Star is covering the Liberal Party; this was also my job at The Globe and Mail in my 16 years there and it was also among my duties at the National Post in my brief employment acquaintance with that newspaper. Michael Ignatieff was out on the road this summer, meeting Liberals. If you want to understand the Liberal Party, it seemed like this was the place to be. I’m actually surprised that no other media outlet, with the exception of Macleans magazine, thought it was worthwhile to spend more than a day or two aboard the bus.
Beyond that, I’m working on a feature that begged for me to get out of Ottawa, see something other than the spin and noise of Parliament Hill, and this was an ideal hitchhiking opportunity.
Anyway, 10 days on the bus gives me some licence to make some observations, I figure, and here they are, in no particular order:
- I’m repeatedly asked whether Michael Ignatieff is “getting better.” Better than what? I usually ask. What this usually means is whether he’s better than the Conservative ads make him out to be. And yes, he is better than that. Not once did he stand in a satanic pentagram and invoke the gods of socialism or socialist coalitions. Nor did the bus stop at Harvard or a villa in France.
- What are the crowds like? They are very young on the bus -- young, highly engaging, whip-smart, efficient people on the official tour; elderly, mainly retirement-age people in the audiences. There are probably many demographic reasons for this wide disparity in age representation, but something tells me that 30- and 40- and 50-somethings are most absent from political-party participation unless someone is paying them to be interested. Usually, there are about 100 people, give or take a dozen or two, at each stop.
- Is Ignatieff talking about policy? Yes, in broad strokes, no in real specifics. Mainly the speeches are about positioning the party in opposition to the Conservatives. They are also about Ignatieff himself -- his history, his values, and how they fit with the Liberal past. The crowds like the speeches. They tend to be surprised. See the earlier point about him “getting better.” They are usually expecting a Harvard prof, just leaving for the airport, blowing air kisses goodbye to Canada.
- What’s this whole tour about anyway? It’s not about getting front-page headlines. Mainly it seems to be a rehearsal for an election campaign, getting Liberals on the bus and off it used to the idea of the rigours of a road trip. What’s different about this tour is that it doesn’t have to contend with other tours; Ignatieff isn’t doing a whole lot of reacting to other campaigns. Harper, as we know, has been on vacation.
- Is this tour a game-changer, in terms of federal political dynamics? Have a read of Chantal Hebert’s column in today’s Star. Like her, I remember Chretien’s bus tours of 1993 and just yesterday, was telling folks on the bus that those forays were far more modest in terms of travel and media coverage. They weren’t a big deal while Ottawa was preoccupied with the race to replace Brian Mulroney as Conservative leader and focus on the brief public-opinion honeymoon of Kim Campbell. But they did establish the Liberals as road-worthy.
I agree with Chantal -- this tour, at about the three-quarters mark, has probably accomplished the same thing. So rather than read about the bus tour in local media or Conservative talking points, it might be a good idea for national reporters to get out there and have a look. And hey, the food’s great too. My only complaint is that there’s too much of it -- along with too many Tim Horton’s stops.