Monday, December 03, 2007

A forgettable year later

This time one year ago I'd just left the Liberal leadership convention in Montreal for a work conference in sunny Las Vegas. Unfortunately the luck of the weekend didn’t carry over to the gaming tables, and it seemed like the luck faded quickly for Stephane Dion and the LPC as well. The honeymoon, such as it was, was very short.

It had certainly been a euphoric weekend. I was a very early Dion supporter but I’d never thought we’d actually win, and as I got to Montreal and things began to roll it did almost seem unbelievable, even as it was happening. It was a historic achievement, a weekend I’ll never forget. A year on though how far away that weekend, and those emotions, now seem.

As a Dion supporter I want to be fair in my evaluation of the past year, but I also don’t want to be unfairly harsh. It has certainly been a forgettable year; indeed, it has seemed like a year of one step forward, two steps back. Bottom line is while we remain neck and neck with the Conservatives in most polls, we haven’t gained an inch of ground either.

As the leader, Dion needs to shoulder a great deal of the blame for where we are. That comes with the mantle of leadership and besides, he hasn’t done a good job of leading our party.

There has been little to no progress on party reform; Dion was elected by a grassroots groundswell against the party elites yet nothing has changed. The communications strategy of the OLO has been a mess. We’ve let the Conservatives set the agenda, and get the better of us on most issues. The caucus and party bureaucracy haven’t come together’ leaks and backbiting have been rampant, critics haven’t stayed on message, and those that have gone off the reservation haven’t been smacked-down.

More importantly, we’ve let the Conservatives define us. Their ‘not a leader’ ads have been proven a valuable investment, but their impact was magnified by the lack of any sustained, coherent counter-messaging on our side. We’ve made little to no effort to define Dion, so the Conservatives have been more then happy to do it for us.

That’s the bad, in short form. And while, as I said, Dion needs to take his fair share of blame as he is the leader and, frankly, he hasn’t gotten it done, much of the problems lay much deeper. We’re a party still fractured from the civil war of the Chretien/Martin era, still suffering from post-sponsorshipitis, still needing to find our way. These challenges were going to be there, and were going to be very difficult to overcome, no matter whom we elected a year ago.

To say things would be much different today if we’d elected someone else a year ago would be naive, simplistic, and just plain wrong. I won’t go through and list the negatives of all the other candidates, we all know what they are and they aren’t insubstantial. Suffice to say, the Conservatives had a game plan ready to go and attack ads in the hopper for all of them, with the possible exception of Joe Volpe.

To say it would be different with another leader is to paper over the real issues we were facing, and still face, as a party. It’s the attitude of those who still see our last election loss as a mere aberration, a temporary setback before we return to electoral majority glory and all is once again right in the world.

I say again, as I have before, that it was no mere aberration. What happened to the momentum for party reform, for reclaiming the Liberal Party? It seems we’ve become so tunneled-in on the next election it’s been forgotten. It’s probably too late now, but we really need a policy convention; the needed soul searching still hasn’t happened.

Anyway, despite the negatives of this year, and the missed opportunities, things aren’t really as bad as some would have us believe. While we’ve failed to grow, we’ve held back Conservative growth and we’re in the thick of the fight. We’ve got good issues to tackle the Conservatives on, we’re well positioned on certain key issues, and with the notable exception of Quebec (and Alberta) we’re in very good shape in the polls, with growth potential in B.C., the Prairies, Ontario and the Maritimes.

Mock me if you must but examine the numbers and you’ll see if we run a solid, error-free campaign we have a decent shot at a Liberal minority government. Of course, that’s a helluva big if. Still, it’s a much more plausible scenario then the one I would paint in the spring of 2006 when people asked me how in the heck Stephane Dion could ever ascend to the leadership.

The opportunity is there but only if we, and if Dion, are ready to seize it. We need to come together as a party, as it’s going to need to be all hands on deck. We need to rally behind Dion but, more importantly, he needs to really us behind him. Get back to his core strengths; going to Bali is a good start. Start talking clear and detailed policy alternatives, don’t just be attacking all the time. Chose your spots, and oppose with class. Get the whole team involved but make sure it’s clear who the boss is, and ship-out those that won’t shape-up.

The last two opposition leaders to become PMs had very forgettable first years as well. A success in the next election and this past year will be forgotten. The fact is our destiny is still very much in our own hands. What we do with it is up to us.

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8 comments:

900 ft Jesus said...

I was a Dion supporter almost from the start as well. Not the most charismatic, but the most solid, well tested, good views, and I'd rather have that than someone who looks good on a poster.

You're right on about the sticking together bit. We can do it.

Steve V said...

Jeff

A very balanced synopsis, nice job.

I'm with you on the party reform question, nothing has changed, despite all the talk of last year. I wonder if part of this isn't the pre-occupation with a looming election and the internal strife? In some ways, a majority scenario might have been a better backdrop to allow the party the time and space to re-define. However, excuses aside, it's the status quo. What I find most disappointing, the failure to engage the grassroots, via the online community. Trippi made his big speech to Liberals, we know how the Democrats have engaged, to the point where the party heavyweights come to the internet. Why does the Canadian center, center-left still lag so far behind, with no strategy to use the medium effectively?

All in all, despite the doom and gloom, the Liberals are still in the conversation, which does allow for a hint of optimism moving forward.

Dr. Tux said...

Jeff,

You paint a gloomy picture that I don't really agree with.

We're doing well, polls show liberals and cons at a neck and neck, and Dion still hasn't really been defined in the public's imagination.

Part of the problem, of course, has been that Dion has been holding his cards close to his chest. He's released a couple policies here and there, but the media has largely been unreceptive and it's really a smart move waiting till there is an election.

Once an election is called, we'll see the image of Dion being to shift. Policies will be released and Canadians will become more familiar with what we saw during the leadership race a year ago. Dion, moreover, IS charismatic. Remember the fiesty debates he was in? The criticisms of Dion's french accent miss the point that he is crystal clear in his thinking, and can deliver complex thinking in short, rapid-fire style.

We can also see that the focus and attention of the media are returning to criticism of Harper. This seems only natural given the flagrant disrespect Harper has shown for Canada's traditional role in the world - ie. as a leader on human rights and the environment.

Finally, Layton's attempt at portraying Dion and Harper as the same person are nothing less than pathetic. This won't stick because there's no substance to this claim. We'll see with the release of the liberal platform just how different these two are.

quaeitur said...

Jeff, refreshingly candid.

I would only add that the media played a large role in 'defining' Mr. Dion. e.g., Craig Oliver's comments on Friday's CTV National story about Dion's statement to the effect that the Mulroney-Schreiber mess is not a 'gift' to the Liberals... Oliver: Dion pretending to take the heigh road...who's he kidding. (I fired off an email to CTV telling them what I thought about that - no reply)

As long as CTV and Global control the message, the message will be lies.

quaeitur said...

oops, that should be 'high' road

Mushroom said...

Jeff,

Ditto with regards to Steve's comments.

Very candid piece,couldn't write a better one myself. Dion was my second choice and once Kennedy stood down, he was the natural alternative for almost all of us there.

Party reform is difficult. I insist on it regularly at the local level. Election readiness becomes a priority and a constant struggle in unheld ridings short of cash. We all were impressed with the enthusiasm which the leadership campaign generated with regards to new members etc. However, we somehow lost this momentum this year.

I attribute this partly to the Ontario provincial elections. Getting McGuinty re-elected is a major priority to many of us here. His win does provide a major boost to the grassroots in the new year, if we can keep them engage. However, you have advanced most of the dilemmas that needs to be overcome and if we start addressing them, the renewal process will move forward.

A BCer in Toronto said...

Steve,

I wonder if part of this isn't the pre-occupation with a looming election and the internal strife? In some ways, a majority scenario might have been a better backdrop to allow the party the time and space to re-define.

You're probably right. The shortened timeline has made it difficult to schedule a policy convention and go through a reform process. Also, with the party having difficulties those that weren't fully onboard have a motivation to stay on the sidelines; a quick election loss and they can envision their horse coming-in to save the day. So the minority situation has both made reform tougher, and given those not inclined too it little motivation to get onboard.

Tux,


You paint a gloomy picture that I don't really agree with.


Not all doom. I agree with all your points on the positive side. As I said all things said we're in decent position. But the fact remains we've had a lot of setbacks this year, and we could have been in much better position then we are.

Dr. Tux said...

Jeff,

"and we could have been in much better position then we are."

Well, my first inclination is to point out that this is just speculation. My second inclination is to emphasize that we could've been in a much worse position than we are in today.

The fact is that the liberal brand remains strong. This is probably due to historical circumstance, but it's also due to Dion's focus on the team and not just himself. There's a lot of talent within the party and Dion's approach of partnership showcases that talent. It's smart politics and management.

You've also got to remember that the liberal party was really hammered hard over the past couple years. Where we stand now, we can actually see the light. It's a huge change from where we stood only a while ago.

So celebrate accomplishments and look back to where we've come from.

Harper's lost his shine and that's really, really important.