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The Post-Dion Era

30-Oct-08 10:00 pm EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Well, I’ve finally found a quick moment to do my own personal post-mortem of the recently-concluded Canadian federal election.  And my "executive summary" is simply this: Dion lost the election because he wasn’t a strong enough communicator.  And there could be no more a fatal flaw for any politician.  Oh sure; you can be in politics without strength as a communicator, but you’ll never excel – and you need to excel to be elected to the top political post in most countries.  Even in Canada (where our politics are said to be unexciting.)

Other explanations were raised:

  • Dion was a ‘weak’ leader.  I’ve never been sure what this meant exactly, but I’ve never found Dion particularly weak.  He was presented as weak by the Conservatives and somehow this stuck with both the media and as a perception with the Canadian public, but I still feel strongly this has more to do with Dion’s chronic inability to communicate effectively, particularly in English.
  • The ‘Green Shift’ was the right idea, at absolutely the wrong time.  This was Dion’s own explanation for his defeat; at least the principal reason.  But despite the public reporting to pollsters repeatedly going into the election that the environment and climate change were the leading issues – I’m still very skeptical that the majority of people are prepared to sacrifice where it hurts most to do anything about it: in the pocketbook.  Not that the Green Shift was going to do that, necessarily.  Again despite what the Conservatives were saying about it, this wasn’t a tax grab – it was, simply put, a reform of the tax system to orient the collection of revenue around pollution instead of wealth exclusively.  Yet despite the relative simplicity of this idea, the unyielding complaint was the plan confused voters (presumably in terms of the details of the plan’s implementation).  And, once again – poor communication was to blame for this, although not solely poor communication by Dion.
  • The Liberal Party was cash-strapped and fought the election at too great a disadvantage.  The sponsorship scandal a few years back cost the party dearly in terms of popular political contributions and party memberships – particularly in the home province of the scandal, and a long-time stronghold of Liberal support among federalist voters: Québec.  While the scandal itself was the cause of cash flow problems, little has really been done to rectify the situation – and the job would be made much easier if the party had a leader that could inspire and attract interest in the party and its policies.  Dion’s communications weakness hobbled what meager efforts were undertaken prior to the election call.
  • The Party wasn’t fully behind Dion.  This notion came to light only after the election was over, but it has become increasingly common to hear pundits claim that Liberals behind the scene weren’t fully behind Dion because he’d frequently dismiss advice from colleagues and party strategists – even when he was urged to downplay or drop the Green Shift.  Some Liberal candidates – particularly defeated ones – have also come forward in recent days claiming they’d hear "I like you, but not your leader" when canvassing door-to-door.  The trouble with this idea is that it’s hard to guage exactly what practical impact it had either on the campaign or on voter decision-making.  One would think such divisions within the party would lead candidates to be less-enthused about their leader both going door-to-door and in discourse with their own volunteers, but they’d be well aware that it could only be counter-productive to openly divorce themselves from Dion during an election campaign.

Of course, whatever the reason, it simply wasn’t tenable for Dion to remain leader.  I am disappointed with his performance – particularly so because I originally supported him when he was but one in a field of almost nameless Liberal backbenchers vying for the top job; to fill the vacuum left by Paul Martin’s departure.  He’s a bright fellow whom, I’m sure, could have mastered English far more had he made more of an effort (and his efforts were allegedly half-hearted).  This would have gone a long way to boost his overall weakness as a communicator, and he simply blew his chance in my books.

So who’s next?

Obviously, two names familliar to those who followed the last Liberal leadership convention if no other party history, are currently at the forefront: Bob Rae and Michael Ignatief.  And, unfortunately, if either of these fellows gets elected leader -the Liberal Party could be facing the same kind of oblivion the Progressive Conservatives were led to by Brian Mulroney.  Rae is not thought fondly of in his home province of Ontario thanks to a whole host of political history form his term as provincial Premier; some rationales for that disdain make more sense than others.  And I’ve heard too much about Ignatief undermining Dion the same way Martin damaged Chrétien’s leaership prior to Martin finally being coronated leader after the latter’s retirement.  And I don’t like it when ambition overrides the interests of the party and the ideals it stands for – indeed, I’m very suspicious of those who find themselves being cast in such light.  And so are a whole lot of other Canadians.

But the Liberals have a real problem. Delegates have already lined up behind these two – many even before Dion had formally lost the election.  Is there anyone else who could come in off the sidelines to resurrect the Liberal Party?

There are a few names to consider: Shiela Copps, Brian Tobin and Frank McKenna.  But so far the former two have not made so much as a hit they’re even considering the succession.  And McKenna – notorious for not committing one way or the other quickly (as was the scenario during the last Liberal leadership race) – has indicated he’s thinking about it, but the punditry appears to be leaning away from suggesting there’s any real likelihood of him coming in.

Fortunately, there’s still a fair bit of time before the Liberals will be in any position to hold their convention to sort the party’s future leadership out.  And if they’ve got any collective wisdom left in their ranks, they’ll use the time to carefully consider alternatives to those whose candidacy is assured for the Party will surely be setting itself up for another failed leadership and further damage (possibly the irreparable sort) otherwise.  The early wish I have is for McKenna to enter the race and save the party – notwithstanding declarations from Copps, Tobin or perhaps other less-prominent alternatives with longer odds, but a greater chance of restoring the Liberal Party to its rightful place in the center of the Canadian political landscape.

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Terry Glavin

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