INTERVIEW

'Ignatieff—someone who has been out of the country for 35 years—he's an expert on my party and my reputation?'

October 16 2006
INTERVIEW

'Ignatieff—someone who has been out of the country for 35 years—he's an expert on my party and my reputation?'

October 16 2006

'Ignatieff—someone who has been out of the country for 35 years—he's an expert on my party and my reputation?'

INTERVIEW

JOE VOLPE, FEDERAL LIBERAL LEADERSHIP HOPEFUL, TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HIS SKILL SET, AFGHANISTAN, AND SIGNING UP THE DEAD

Q YOU entered elected politics aggressively, knocking off a sitting Liberal MP. How has that shaped your reputation and your career?

A: What it did is give an indication that I was willing to challenge perceived notions and conventional wisdom, and that I was willing to challenge the system. The old boys’ network didn’t like that.

Q: You ve been an MP for 18 years. Yourestill portrayed as a tough guy, a backroom boy, an organizer. Is that irritating?

A: You need to have pretty thick skin in politics. I’m seen as someone who knows all the ropes, who understands the rough and tumble of it, and who’s able to rise above it— and in terms of issues that are important to Canada, I’m respected as having a better understanding of macro Canadian issues, in other words those issues that take Canada beyond today, than virtually anybody else.

Q: You mean anybody else in the leadership race?

A: Yes. The proof of it is that alone, of all of the candidates, I’ve been the subject of a lot of attention and all of that attention has never been with respect to either my competence or my expertise.

Q: Why do you think the press doesn’t focus on the fact that you speak three languages fluently and have three degrees?

A: People talk about how an intellectual skills network is important for all of Canada,

and [I’m] the only one who’s actually been on all sides of this issue: as an educator, an administrator, an innovator, as someone who’s worked with the unions, with the learning centres, so I know not only the ideals but the mechanisms to get them accomplished. Why aren’t people paying attention to that? I’d be guessing, but I’d say that what the press has been attracted to so far is sort of a personality issue.

Q: The Liberal party has given you 30 days to pay a $20,000 fine because your volunteers recruited supporters who didn’t pay their ow?i membership fees. Are you going to withdraw from the race so you don’t have to pay?

A: Absolutely not.

Q: Campaign donations from children. Dead people being registered as members. Why isn’t it better for the Liberal party if you simply withdraw from the race?

A: If people have been able to throw stones at my campaign, it’s because we have been totally transparent and open. People have focused on me as opposed to anybody else because it serves their political interests, not because there’s anything untoward. With respect to donations, nothing was done illegally or against convention.

Q: But the optics were bad. And that’s why you paid the money back.

A: I don’t want to disagree with you. The optics were bad. I told my people, “That’s not what we’re about, we’re giving the money back.” As far as my people were concerned, they did things that were within convention.

But that’s fine, we’re going to rise above the law, we’re going to go to the spirit of the law, and we’re going to challenge everybody to do the same. And you know what? There were no takers. With respect to what happened in the sign-up process, there can’t be one person in this world who is serious when he or she says that Joe Volpe would want to go out there and sign up somebody who can’t come and support him! It just defies logic. And secondly, that Joe Volpe would go out there, in the media, and draw attention to some of these anomalies in a campaign environment because it’s good for him or for the party? Where is it that these things get critiqued by serious logic?

Q: Then why do these attacks continue? Why did Carolyn Bennett say that you should withdraw from the race? Why has Michael Ignatieff said that you’ve caused “reputational damage” to the party?

A You’ve got to ask them.

I mean, Carolyn Bennett has dropped out of the race and she’s gone to support somebody else. Ignatieff talking about “reputational damage”—here’s someone who’s been out of the country for 35 years, he’s become an expert on my party and my reputation?

Q: It’s got to be hard for your family.

A: The only thing that anybody has in life is their own good name. I’ve had occasion not to be pleased with the way some of the

reporting has taken place. Transgressions, omissions on the part of other camps don’t even get a mention. For example, last week, there were allegations of improprieties in sign-ups in another camp.

Q: You’re talking about the Ignatieff campaign?

A: And it was dismissed, like, almost immediately. I can’t comment on whether people are following professional ethics in journalism or not, but Joe Volpe isn’t going out there to provide opportunities for people to dump on the Liberal party. I suppose that if the Liberals abided by the same kind of ethic, everything would be just fine.

Q: What are you offering that the other candidates cannot?

A: Experience in the party, in Parliament and in government. None of them can do that. Even my good friend Stéphane Dion, for all of his talents, he’s relatively new to the Liberal party. But I’m also the only really fresh face in the group, an out-of-the-box type of candidate.

Q: You can’t be both experienced and a fresh face.

A: The incongruity is that I challenge all of the usual within-the-box thinking, I am the only one who doesn’t fit the norm of having one of the founding nations in the mix. [Volpe immigrated to Canada from Italy when he was seven years old.] About 40 per cent of the country’s population are first or second generation [immigrants]. Are we prepared to have somebody who represents this great swath of people who are becoming Canada and shaping Canada?

Q: Which prime minister do you admire the most?

A: Wilfrid Laurier. He had the courage to try to make this into a country of ideas and entrepreneurship. He really said, “We have been gifted with one of nature’s greatest cornucopia of wealth, and what we need are people to make this place grow and assume its rightful place in the world.” And he said, “We can’t have a we/they approach to developing Canada. We have to have a place where everybody has proprietorship.”

QBut by suggesting some of the attacks on you have been related to the fact that you’re Italian, aren’t you reintroducing a we/they mentality?

A: No, and I think that you’ll find that nowhere in anybody’s record have I referred to myself as an Italian-Canadian or said that people are against me because I’m Italian. If you do, then I will stand to be corrected. What I did say is that I am viewed as an outsider, by people in the party who said to me, “You know Joe, you’re an outsider, you’re not

going to win.” We’ll see whether the public sees me as an outsider or not.

Q: What’s your response to Alfonso Gagliano, former federal public works minister and a key figure in the sponsorship scandal, saying, in effect, “What’s happening to Joe Volpe is happening because there’s prejudice against Italians, and I have experienced it also”?

AI haven’t spoken to Alfonso since he left federal politics. I didn’t even know that I registered on his radar screen. But if that’s what he felt... Many others have called up and said that resonated with them. Perhaps one of the reasons people see me as a tough individual is that I try not to let any of this stuff derail me from my objective. And all of these attacks are designed to throw our campaign off its tracks.

Q: It can’t be very helpful to have somebody like that attach himself to your name.

A: There’s a lot of people who have attached themselves to my name and have not been very helpful. But the last time I looked, Mr. Gagliano had not been charged with anything. I’m not here to defend him, but he’s suffered immensely over the course of the last several years. Would it have been better if Jean Chrétien or Paul Martin had stood up and said, “Everybody stop it, Joe’s an honourable man”? The only one who did that was Gerard Kennedy. Now, is that good or bad?

Q: You tell me.

A: Well, look, if another leadership candidate stands up and says, “I know Joe Volpe to be an honourable man,” why wouldn’t you have focused on what he said?

Q: Some in your party and in the media say you’re staying in the race to try to negotiate a cabinet position in return for throwing your support to whomever. What’s your response?

A: I’d like to be the leader of the Opposition. The party has to win the election [before] its leader can choose the cabinet. So I thank everybody for thinking of my better interest, but let’s focus on winning the election first.

Q: How would you take on Harper if you were leader?

A: There’s a world of difference between Stephen Harper and Joe Volpe on questions related to Canada’s role in the world. For example, highlighted by his approach to Afghanistan.

Q: You were a member of the cabinet that decided to send troops to Afghanistan.

A: We sent over a peacekeeping, reconstruction, humanitarian group that was consistent with our capabilities, with our objectives, with our intentions, and with our obligations to the international scene. We had a

timeline, we had a specific objective, we knew the goals and we had the exit strategy. Stephen Harper changed all of that and said, “You know, we’re going to go in there as war fighters and we’re not leaving till the job is done.” Nobody has clarified what the objectives are. Nobody’s clarified the timelines, and the resources that are going to be put to use in order to accomplish a never-ending task. All experts indicate right now that we’re going to be in there for at least a generation in order to get a political, cultural change. Whether you’re going to have Canada’s role in the world built on military objectives that are very ill-defined, and whether, domestically, you’re minimalist in your approaches to the federal government, those are two very important, fundamental differences. And you’ve described me as a tough guy? Stephen Harper respects that. He doesn’t respect anything else.

‘But I’m also the only really fresh face in the group, an out-ofthe-box type of candidate’

Q: A lot of people really admire your stoicism during your wife’s long illness. Have you ever cried, and if so, why?

A: What we do in politics is open to the public, but our private life, it’s our private life. I’m devoted to my wife, and I’m not going to do anything that hurts my wife or my family, so I’m not even going to answer that. Perhaps in this respect, I’m old world. My family is everything to me. Nl

ON THE WEB: For more on the Liberal leadership race, visit ww.macleans.ca/liberalrace