Before Liberals get too excited about Mark Carney, they should remember Michael Ignatieff

Sixteen years ago, a handsome man in his 50s, who had been a big deal in the U.K., addressed a Liberal policy convention. He was distinguished, impressive and possessed the political allure that comes with having been a great success at something other than politics.

Former bank governor stirs convention, like a distinguished academic did more than a decade earlier

Former Bank of Canada and Bank of England governor Marc Carney addresses the Liberal Party's policy convention via video link. (CBC)

Sixteen years ago, a handsome man in his 50s, who had been a big deal in the United Kingdom, addressed a Liberal policy convention. He was distinguished and impressive and he possessed the political allure that comes with having been a great success at something other than politics. Though he did not admit to having any ambitions for public office, he was already being touted as a potential successor to the prime minister of the day.

Less than a year later, Michael Ignatieff was the Liberal MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Four years after that, he was leader of the Liberal party. 

But the less said about what happened after that, the better.

Mark Carney is not the exact facsimile of Ignatieff. A political turn by Carney — if he is so inclined — is not fated to end in tears. 

But Ignatieff's story is a cautionary tale that Liberals, Carney boosters and Carney himself might want to heed before anyone gets too excited about the former bank governor's appearance at this weekend's Liberal convention.

Carney was not exactly electrifying in his appearance on Friday night — though perhaps few people are when speaking via video call from their living room. But he no doubt set Liberal hearts aflutter with his comments about "the responsibility of service" and his pledge to "do whatever I can to support the Liberal party in our efforts to build a better future for Canadians."

Those words will pour fuel on speculative fires that have been smouldering for years.

Regardless of whether he is actually now preparing or prepared to run as a Liberal for elected office, Liberals will no doubt happily accept the credibility that any association might lend to them. Generally speaking, if the former governor of the banks of Canada and England offers his endorsement and support, you accept it. 

Roots in government

Beyond his resume and reputation, his publicly stated concerns also fit within the broad ideas that the Liberal party has tried to associate itself with since Justin Trudeau became leader. Carney has long been interested in questions about climate change and sustainability and he is now promoting a weighty tome — Value(s) — in which he argues that human values should not be secondary to market values. 

But whether Carney would be any good at politics is another matter entirely.

In Ignatieff's own telling of the six years he spent as a practising politician — Fire and Ashes, published in 2013 — he recalls leaving the stage after his speech in March 2005 and being met by a crush of people, including a journalist who was an old friend. 

"He whispered, 'Good speech,' and then realizing I really was about to take the plunge gave me the commiserating look old friends give you when they know they can't stop you doing something foolish," Ignatieff writes.

Michael Ignatieff acknowledges crowd after being named leader at the Liberal Leadership Convention in Vancouver on May 2, 2009. Ignatieff emerged as a great hope for the Liberal party, the reality proved much different. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There are elements of Carney's story that distinguish him from Ignatieff.

For one thing, Carney's professional life is much more grounded in Canada — before his five years as governor of the Bank of Canada, he worked for three years as a senior official in the federal department of finance and one year as the bank's deputy governor. Even after seven years as governor of the Bank of England, it should be difficult to portray him as a fairweather Canadian who's "just visiting."

(Carney made sure to note on Friday that he was born in the Northwest Territories and grew up in Edmonton.)

Though bank governors are necessarily apolitical — or at least non-partisan — Carney's time as governor also exposed him to a level of politics that Ignatieff had only really observed. Ignatieff had delivered lectures and written essays, Carney has done news conferences and defended policy decisions.

NDP, Tories launch attacks

But Ignatieff's example demonstrates that you can't really know how well someone is going to do at partisan politics until they actually try to do it. Professional politics of this sort is a series of acts that most humans don't take to naturally: stump speeches, hostile interviews, speaking in slogans and shaking hands with strangers. Your words are picked over, your mannerisms are scrutinized and you will inevitably embarrass yourself from time to time.

Already, Carney has run into trouble over a recent claim that the investments of Brookfield Asset Management, for whom he now works, are producing "net-zero" emissions. Carney's argument rested on the idea that renewable energy sources in Brookfield's portfolio were resulting in "avoided emissions" that counter-balanced the firm's investments in fossil fuels. Climate experts objected to that math and Carney was compelled to acknowledge that he was mistaken. 

Hours before Carney spoke on Friday night, the New Democrats sent a note to reporters to rehash that gaffe. While noting that Carney spent 13 years "climbing the corporate ladder at Goldman Sachs," the NDP accused the Liberals of "court[ing] the approval of the ultra-rich and well connected." 

Shortly thereafter, the Conservatives issued a release describing Carney as "one of Canada's most well-known elites" and accusing him of "promot[ing] trendy new economic experiments that are popular with Davos billionaires."

There would be more of that sort of thing if Carney actually crosses the threshold into politics. And then he'd be mocked relentlessly if he tried to compensate by ditching his nice suits and only ever wearing plaid shirts and jeans.

Of course, if one does manage to succeed at politics there are rewards — like being able to make meaningful changes to public policy that substantially improve the lives of your fellow citizens. If you are into that sort of thing, politics might have some appeal.

Carney will wake up Saturday morning as more of a political figure than he was before he spoke on Friday night. And Liberals will wake up happy for whatever excitement he might generate. But no one should get too far ahead of themselves just yet.

At the very least, Carney should read Ignatieff's book before going any further.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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