Advertisements for himself

There's a lot of excitement in the press about the Liberals' new campaign ads. So perhaps I could request 37 seconds of your time on the subject.

I pick 37 seconds for two reasons. First, that's how long the incredibly exciting English-language ad lasts, which suggests either an insulting estimate of your attention span or a realistic estimate of your interest in Michael Ignatieff's views. Second, I make the second estimate.

I'm personally about as enthusiastic about the churn of Canadian politics as about leprosy. My excuse for writing about it is that an election can come even if you don't want it to and someone will win even if you refuse to vote. If space permitted, I could draw critical lessons about the media here, from their enthusiasm for the subject to the fact that the Globe and Mail and a major Ottawa-based newspaper both ran front-page stories Monday that said the ads were available on YouTube but didn't even provide the URLs let alone put hyperlinks on the online version.

(FYI the English one is at and the French ones at 9pHJ273PlGU and Q1SMxRWem9Q. There, that wasn't hard, was it?) But apparently many journalists still think the Internet is something we write about not through, which... [Space does not permit - ed.]

Yes, sorry, back to the ads. They are interesting, in a grotesque sort of way, for what they reveal about the person who made them. One newspaper ran the headline "New ad tries to soften Ignatieff 's image, expert says" without waiting to see what effect the ad actually had on voters before covering it. But I digress.

The ads clearly are intended to soften Ignatieff's image. For obvious reasons. But the attempt is so transparent, from background to clothing to overgrooming, that it's hard to believe it will work, especially since voters will, at some point, see and hear him speak. What struck me listening to Ignatieff's English-language ad was how clumsy it was. He even starts: "Wherever I've worked, I've met Canadians who are the best the world has to offer." They might as well have included a subtitle: So there's nothing wrong with Mike here having been abroad his whole adult life. And a lot wrong with the parochial hicks who didn't even go to Harvard ... d'oh, that's the voters. Aaaargh.

Even more awkward, even in a 37-second clip, is the blatant absence of any real argument in the ad. I mean argument in the classic sense of a series of logically connected propositions taking you somewhere mentally. There's no subordination, no if-then. It's all just assertion. A revealing sign: he never says the word "if." Which might go some way to dispel Ignatieff's image as an intellectual but not in a good way. Especially since one of the weird things about him, even as an intellectual, is how hard it is to name one important idea with which he's been consistently associated.

Even his desire to be prime minister has more whim than long-term obsession about it. And his infamous "Wait and see" on how to balance the budget without raising taxes wasn't just the most unsuccessful attempt I ever saw to evoke Trudeau's "Just watch me." It also embarrassingly underlined that whatever he spent his academic career pondering, it didn't include how to balance budgets in a vote-buying welfare state.

As Jeffrey Simpson noted in the Globe and Mail, Ignatieff, in the same appearance, insisted that the Liberals balanced the budget in the 1990s without raising taxes but that's not true. In 1995, they "raised taxes on corporations, financial institutions, tobacco and gasoline, and made other corporate tax changes and alterations to retirement plans that added about $1.5 billion to Ottawa's coffers each year." So Ignatieff's assertion was either a clumsy lie or embarrassing ignorance. I know he was out of the country at the time, but shouldn't a former Harvard professor have had his staff do a bit of research?

As for the French ads, they show first that Ignatieff attended the Ekol Joe Clark de Fransay, second that he thinks Québécois have even shorter attention spans at just 31 seconds, and third that he has no more interest in assembling an argument in the other official language. It's just one surly assertion after another, set against a harsh black background rather than the soft fake natural one of the English ads.

For the record, I agree with his attack on the Harper government's budgetary policies. The slogan "Nous méritons mieux" might be a stretch but as for the English version "We can do better," it shouldn't even be hard. The problem is, he has no idea how and doesn't even realize it matters.

That is worth 37 seconds of your time to verify. Probably not 40. But 37.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson