Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff gestures as he speaks with the media during a news conference in Ottawa, Wednesday Dec. 10, 2008.
^ That's gotta be one of the silliest pictures. Where's the joint Iggy?
CTV.ca | Ignatieff rules out Quebec nation in Constitution
OTTAWA -- Michael Ignatieff says he has no interest in reopening the Constitution any time soon to formally recognize Quebec as a nation.
"I think that there's no appetite in Quebec or anywhere else to open the constitutional Pandora's box at the present time," the newly minted Liberal leader told The Canadian Press.
Ignatieff made the assertion during a short but wide-ranging interview Thursday, in which he began sketching out his vision for the country and his party.
He also reiterated his conditions for supporting the minority Tories' coming federal budget and discussed the future of the opposition parties' coalition agreement, as well as his penchant for lofty oratory.
Ordinarily, a new leader's views would be well-canvassed long before taking up the party reins. But the hasty manner of Ignatieff's installation last week -- before one leadership debate could be held or a single vote cast by party rank-and-file -- means the Toronto MP is something of a blank slate as he starts his gruelling new job.
However, Ignatieff did publish a detailed, 40-page "agenda for nation building" during his first, failed attempt at the Liberal crown in 2006.
In that document, he promised to meet the Kyoto targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to restore some Liberal initiatives that were jettisoned by the Tories, including the $5-billion Kelowna accord for improving aboriginal housing, education and health care and the $5-billion national child care program.
Ignatieff said his overall priorities haven't changed but deteriorating economic conditions might make it impossible to tackle them in the way he envisaged in 2006.
"We're now in a radically different economic context so . . . were I in government or were we putting together a platform for an election, we'd have to make some tough choices."
Ignatieff's 2006 platform also called for the recognition of Quebec and aboriginal peoples as "nations within the fabric of Canada" and held out the hope of one day enshrining that concept in the Constitution.
Ignatieff said he remains proud of the "small part" he played in igniting a debate that eventually led to a 2006 parliamentary motion affirming that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada. But he said now is not the time to pursue the matter any further.
"Now, in the middle of an economic crisis of unprecedented severity, talking about the Constitution seems the last thing on anybody's mind."
Ignatieff said he's "very concerned" about the need to "reach out to the rank-and-file" Liberals who were given no say on who should succeed Stephane Dion as leader.
In the long term, he said it's important for the party to move to a one-person, one-vote system for choosing future leaders.
In the short term, Ignatieff said he intends to criss-cross the country and use the Internet and email to consult grassroots Liberals on the measures they want to see in the budget.
He hopes to convene a "thinkers' conference" within a few months to lay out the broad policy directions for the party -- focussing in particular on how to turn the recession into an opportunity for Canada to become more competitive.
The results of that conference will then be fed into the already-scheduled May policy convention in Vancouver -- which was originally supposed to choose the new Liberal leader -- where grassroots Liberals can weigh in.
"It's very important that you don't have some kind of elite gathering that the rank and file feel cut off from," he said of the two-stage process.
Ignatieff, a former Harvard academic, has faced charges of elitism before, in part due to his aristocratic family background, his patrician manner and high-flown rhetorical flourishes.
He raised a few eyebrows at his first news conference as leader last week, when he referred to "the year of our Lord, 2008" and the West as "the beating economic heart of our country's future." But Ignatieff urged his critics to "lighten up."
"I think it's important for a politician to communicate clearly and accessibly to everybody but it's also important to have a little fun with the way you choose words and use words. I mean, otherwise we'll all die of boredom."
Ignatieff's plans for re-engaging Liberals could yet be thrown into disarray if he decides he can't support the budget.
He said he remains "entirely prepared to form a coalition government" if the budget is deemed inadequate.
The three opposition parties united earlier this month to defeat Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government following a fall fiscal update that included no stimulus for the flagging economy or aid for struggling auto, forestry and manufacturing sectors. They agreed to ask the Governor General to give a Liberal-NDP coalition, propped up by the Bloc Quebecois, a chance to govern rather than call an election.
Ignatieff, never one of the most enthusiastic coalition proponents, said the agreement remains intact and must continue to be a real threat in order to force Harper to produce the kind of budget needed during the global economic crisis.
"The boys who gave us the autumn (fiscal) statement could easily give us a terrible budget and any responsible politician who wants to protect the national interest has to keep the coalition hanging over these people's heads so they clearly understand they can't make that same stupid mistake a second time."
Ignatieff declined to put a dollar figure on the kind of stimulus package that would satisfy Liberals.
"I think it's important not to put a dollar figure out there because, you know, there's a wide range of respectable economic opinion about that question," he said.
"I don't want to be pinned to, it's got to be this billion or that billion and if it isn't, then . . . That's just not the way to make responsible economic policy."
Ignatieff, who met with the prime minister last Friday, said he bluntly told Harper that the update sapped all goodwill among opposition MPs to work constructively with the government.
"I said to Mr. Harper that we have a problem of trust and we have a problem of confidence -- confidence in the constitutional sense and confidence in the human sense. We do have a problem of trust but it's up to him to fix it. I didn't start this problem. He did."