John Ivison: Mark Carney isn’t ruling himself in as a potential Liberal leader, either

After his home-heating-oil fiasco, it is hard to see a way back for Justin Trudeau, and so the chances of a leadership contest are on the rise

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The “news” that Mark Carney has refused to rule himself out of any Liberal leadership contest is less compelling than it first appears. A closer read of the recent Globe and Mail interview that revealed the news reveals he also refused to rule himself in.

Carney has been straddling the fence on whether to commit to politics so long, he must be at risk of iron poisoning. Trudeau even offered Carney the job of finance minister to succeed Bill Morneau after Carney’s tenure ended at the Bank of England, but the timing did not work out.

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What is clear is that the former bank governor remains drawn to public service and, should Justin Trudeau call it a day, Carney would be a leading candidate.

A keen student of political history, he knows that he who wields the knife shall never wear the crown, so there is no prospect of him orchestrating Trudeau’s departure.

I think it remains a fifty-fifty proposition whether that even happens. Trudeau has never lost an election; he single-handedly resurrected the Liberal party; and he can point to a track-record of winning after being written off.

However, the recent decision to undermine the integrity of his own carbon-pricing system by exempting home heating oil, in order to appease voters in Atlantic Canada, appears to be the final straw for many Liberals like Jean Chrétien’s former chief of staff, Senator Percy Downe, who is calling for Trudeau to step down.

The decision to leave may end up not being Trudeau’s to make.

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The home-heating-oil fiasco was so badly executed that even someone as cautious as Carney questioned it publicly, saying he would have looked for other ways to support people struggling with soaring home heating bills.

It is hard to see a way back for the prime minister, and so the chances of a leadership contest are on the rise.

The Conservatives are delighted at the prospect of taking a crack at Carney, who leader Pierre Poilievre has called the “incoming leader of the Liberal party.”

Images of former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and ex-Quebec premier Jean Charest have been cast up as evidence that some people are simply not cut out for modern politics. Ignatieff was leader when Stephen Harper won his majority in 2011, sending him back to Harvard to think again. Charest’s Conservative leadership campaign was crushed by Poilievre last year, imparting a warning to “elites” that citizens have lost trust in leaders who they blame for handing control to central banks and the World Economic Forum.

Civility, experience and expertise are seen almost as liabilities in such contests; successful candidates have to persuade the angry and disenfranchised that they are “fighting for you,” as Poilievre claims to have done since being elected as a 25-year-old in 2004. Reputations count for nothing in such a world — and facts scarcely more.

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Poilievre is promising to lower inflation by scrapping the carbon tax to reduce the cost of gas, groceries and housing.

Yet the carbon tax is responsible for just one-twentieth of price increases, according to the current governor of the Bank of Canada, Tiff Macklem; less than 0.2 per cent of inflation.

But who would believe Macklem, after all Poilievre’s efforts to rubbish his reputation? (The Conservative leader has repeatedly pledged he will fire the bank governor if he becomes prime minister.)

It is the same kind of naked hostility that is likely to greet Carney if he ever does step into the ring.

So how well equipped is he to fight back? Is he another Ignatieff?

The answer to that is, there are similarities in their comparative lack of experience in retail politics, but their backgrounds are starkly different. Ignatieff is the son of a diplomat who went to Upper Canada College before finding success overseas as a journalist and academic; Carney is the son of a teacher who went to public school in Edmonton and then gave up a career with Goldman Sachs to work for the Canadian government in the Department of Finance.

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William Hazlitt, the famous English 18th century critic, once said that successful politicians need to subject the will of others to their own; they need to foresee a long and complicated train of events and “unwind the web of others’ policies and weave your own out of it”; they must understand character thoroughly, to see “latent talent and lurking treachery”; and they have to have a purpose steadily in view, removing every obstacle to it.

Carney is not a born politician, someone who wants nothing but power. But he does have a vision of what he wants to do in public life, which he expressed quite clearly at the Canada 2020 Global Progress Action Summit in September. At the time, he said it’s time to build health care, infrastructure, schools, “opportunity, sustainability and prosperity,” utilizing the private sector rather than spending public funds. He contrasted that with Conservative politicians’ interest in destroying, rather than building. “When politicians proclaim that our great democracies are broken, it’s not because they want to fix them. It’s because they want a licence to demolish them.”

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Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in 2017. Photo by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images/File

Carney has a game plan in mind, based more on equality of opportunity than equality of outcomes.

However, Ignatieff’s ordeal makes clear there is more to politics than strategy, something he reflected upon after his return to academia in his book Fire and Ashes.

He said that people may suspect the difference you want to make is to your own life, not theirs. “If a politician cannot succeed in convincing voters that he is in it for them, he cannot win standing and without it, no message can get a hearing.”

Carney will have to come up with something more convincing than noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of privileged people to look after their inferiors, if he is to convince voters he has come back for them.

Ignatieff said he took a while to grasp that explanations always come too late — that you can never explain or never complain.

He said he learned that political knowledge is learning an issue in your guts, not your head, and knowing which causes to back to the hilt.

Ignatieff said that once you enter politics, you are always on show, and you have to surrender the entirety of your private life for the duration. “People are watching.”

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He said that great politicians have to be masters of the local — wherever they are. “They have to give the impression of being at home.”

He learned that politics is intensely physical — “your hands touch, clasp and hold and your eyes are always reaching for contact.”

Great politicians can make contrivance look uncontrived, he said. “All the human skills in politics involve artifice but the artifice must be concealed with ease and grace.”

Ignatieff said none of this came naturally to him, and I doubt it would to Carney either.

Carney’s experience as a bank governor is better preparation than academia or journalism. In that role, Carney was certainly used to obfuscation when asked difficult questions on matters like interest rates.

He has plenty of experience charming rooms full of friendly business types, eyes twinkling and witticisms flowing.

But even his experience during the Brexit referendum, where he emerged as a hate figure for the Brexiteers, is unlikely to have prepared him for the leadership of a political party. As Ignatieff pointed out, another burden of politics is the “lunatic literal-mindedness” of its language. In his Globe interview, Carney ad-libbed: “Better is always possible” — one of Trudeau’s slogans — when asked if a Liberal victory is achievable. But as Ignatieff warned, on entering politics you have to surrender spontaneity and glibness.

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Ultimately, Ignatieff realized that it just wasn’t him.

“I had never been so well-dressed in my entire life and never felt so hollow. I would say that some sense of the hollowness; some sense of a divide between the face you present to the world and the face you reserve for the mirror is a sign of sound mental health,” he said.

Ignatieff was not a born politician and he did not learn to become one. Carney is more at ease politically — he has some of what Ignatieff referred to as a “physical grace, perfected through years of training and stored like muscle memory in the tissue.”

Carney has name recognition across the country and he has the fiscal credentials to persuade many Canadians that he would restore some discipline to the nation’s finances.

But is it him? Who knows? Probably not even the man himself.

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