Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reflecting on Stéphane

I’m in the Maple Leaf Lounge in Vancouver on my way back to Toronto, and thanks to a flight delay when the clocks strike midnight in the GTA I’ll be at 30,000 feet with Air Canada. I had planned to be waiting for my suitcase when the clock struck midnight, so no biggie.

I didn’t want to let the calendar turn from 2008 though without reflecting on the career of Stéphane Dion. Particularly, of course, his tenure as leader of the Liberal Party. As an early and ardent supporter of Dion, I wanted to let a little time to go by to reflect on the event of the past two years.

About mid-way through the 2005/06 election campaign I became deeply disillusioned with politics in general, and Liberal politics in particular, culminating in my disgust with the “soldiers in our streets” ad and the feeble defences offered by the campaign and my declaration the Liberals had lost my vote. When I began considering whether I would remain involved in Liberal politics or not the choice of the next leader played a large role, and the day after the election I was one of the earlier people in blogland to float Dion as a potential leadership candidate.

I won’t rehash all my reasons for supporting him, they’re well-documented in my archives. He was, for me, the right person for the time though: an experienced, loyal Liberal removed from the sponsorship nonsense, palatable to both the Chretienites and the Martinites, whose honesty and integrity was above reproach. I also didn’t shy away from his challenges: charisma, language, the ability to transition from loyal lieutenant to leader. In the end, he never wavered on the positives, but was sadly unable to overcome the negatives.

Frankly, I never expected Dion to win. I’m not sure many really did. I felt though that he was the best candidate on offer at the time – I still do – and he was a candidate I could be proud to support. And I was. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of that convention in Montreal, as the momentum built day-by-day, never wanting to believe we could take this until that final night, and the interminable wait standing in a packed hall waiting for the final ballot results, when I considered, never having considering winning a possibility, how crushed I’d be if we lost now.

That night in Montreal was probably the high-point. There seemed to be real unity in the room that night. As the convention euphoria subsided though and we returned to the real world, and the Conservative attack ads began, the downward trend began.

Where did it go wrong? Who is to blame. The problems were manifold and the culprits many.
For one, much of the party was never really behind him. He was the consensus candidate, but was the first choice of very few, and with early weakness many began to view the Dion administration as a temporary aberration that would soon be corrected. He was hampered by an inability to rally the full weight, and energy, of the party and caucus behind him. The lack of fiscal resources was also a serious impairment. The public and anonymous source snipping from within the tent only served to underline the narrative of the second factor.

And that’s the unprecedented Conservative smear campaign. Never in our political history has a political leader been subjected to such a coordinated, highly financed attempt to destroy their reputation. I freely admit I underestimated the impact and the effectiveness of the Conservative negative ad campaign to ill define Dion. It was far more effective in shaping the view of Dion held by ordinary Canadians than I’d ever imagined. What’s more, out inability to effectively counter the smear campaign, both in paid advertising and in our free media opportunities, meant Dion was buried in a deep hole even a more able politician would likely have been unable to crawl out of.

And finally, but certainly not least, there’s Dion himself. My respect for the man, his integrity, and all he has done for Canada is undiminished. Sadly, however, he was unable to realize the potential we saw in him, and grow into the leader I felt he could become.

As much as it pains me, the language issue was a serious problem. It bothers me that, in a linguistically and ethnically-diverse country as Canada this is the case. It shouldn’t be. But we live in the real world, and I heard from too many people with no interest or stake in politics that the language barrier was a major concern for them to be able to dismiss the issue. While I felt he made improvements over the course of his tenure and during the campaign, the hole was too deep.

As well, frankly Dion proved to lack the skills as a politician to be an effective leader, and particularly to broaden the tent and mend fences across leadership lines. He was unable to develop consensus support within the party for his strategies and policies. During the campaign he seemed to be unwilling to consider strategic course corrections or heed the advice of those more experienced in campaigns when the strategy proved to be failing. The lateness of the shift from an environmental to an economic message is the obvious example. If executed sooner, the result would not have been so bleak. And before then, there was a point where the polls showed it was serious deck chair salvage time, forecasting an even bleaker result.

Which brings us to the Green Shift. This one issue probably encapsulates the Dion tenure. It was, policy-wise, absolutely the right policy, with broad support amongst those informed and educated on the issue. And Dion, as a point of principle, stuck firmly to it, despite being advised of the pitfalls. However, despite the policy-soundness of the Green Shift, it proved to be an albatross due to the fact a) Dion didn’t build the consensus around it within the party, b) he lacked the charisma and language skill as a political leader to be an effective salesman, and c) we again lacked the fiscal and quick response resources to effectively counter the paid advertising and earned media smears and distortions of the Conservatives and the NDP. We let them define the Green Shift, just liked we let them define Dion himself. And the high gas prices at the time didn’t help either.

So, when it comes to examining what went wrong with the Dion leadership there’s lots of blame to go around, and he deserved a good deal of it. As do we rank and file Liberals, and senior anonymous Jane Taber Liberals. For all that though, as I’ve said many times before, the problems facing our party go far deeper than our leader, and if left unresolved, we’ll keep repeating this vicious cycle. As I’ve pondered the Dion leadership the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of the Coldplay lyric:

“Revolutionaries wait, for my head on a silver plate. Just a puppet on a lonely string. Oh, who would ever want to be King?”

For all his faults and shortcomings, from the language barrier to his stubbornness, in the way that he left the leadership, Dion again demonstrated the integrity and putting of country and party before self that drew me to him in the first place. By stepping aside early to allow Michael Ignatieff’s selection as interim leader, something he was under no obligation to do, he again showed more respect and commitment to the party than, frankly, it has ever shown him.

While he wasn’t, in the end, the right person for the job, Dion leaves it with his pride intact, having not wavered from the core commitments he holds dear. He stood-for what he believes in, even if it wasn’t popular, and even though it cost him dearly. That’s why I decided to support him, and on that, he hasn’t let me down. Merci, Stéphane.

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Frankly Canadian said...

Very well put, I couldn't agree with your analysis more. I hope Mr. Ignatief will be able to coordinate the changes needed to initiate a grass roots involvement similar to the Barrack Obama movement. Any attempt to get the average Joe blow Canadian involved or properly informed will definitely be a major step in the right direction. If enough people start participating in the things that are truly important in our world, we could make more of a difference on issues of our environment, world poverty, world peace and equality, justice and stability, happiness and health. These are all issues that can be tackled by community, municiple, provincial, and federal levels of involvement, however it takes a true leader to instigate that massive enthusiasm to get involved or to have the average joe blow Canadian want to give up $5/$10/$20 for a good cause. I personally thought that Mr. Dion was going to be that man but as you illustrated this was not going to happen. I have met Mr. Ignatief and he very well could be that type of leader, although, as you pointed out, many things come into play on such matters. Anyways I love to read the various blogs so keep it up and have a great new year.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

IANAL (which in this case means "I Am Not a Liberal, natch), but like you, I liked Dion when he was chosen, and I like him now. And as for Ignatieff, well, I don't loathe him like many other New Democrats do, but there are so many ways in which he's not and will never be Dion's equal.

The electoral fortunes of the Liberal party are not my fight and not my business, but the fact that the country couldn't accept someone like Dion as a viable Liberal leader still hits a bit close to home. This is because, along with a lot of other things I learned this year, I just really don't like what that says about Canadian politics in the 21st century, or about Canadian voters. It's depressing.

Anonymous said...

I agree--good analysis. I respect Dion's integrity and intelligence. I hope that he will continue to contribute largely to the Liberal platform in another capacity. Unfortunately, as a leader, communication is key and he was lacking in that respect. No fault to him, it is just how it is. I don't know how he bore up under a smear campaign like that. It was horrid.

Unknown said...

As someone without party affiliation (I follow politics rather closely though, including doing such wacky things as watching all of the leadership conventions), I was impressed with him overall and would have been interested to see how he would have done as PM.

The Liberals are very unlikely to get my vote with Ignatieff at the helm, although it's unlikely to matter since I expect that Scarborough Centre will stay red despite anti-coalition rhetoric.

Gayle said...

"For all his faults and shortcomings, from the language barrier to his stubbornness, in the way that he left the leadership, Dion again demonstrated the integrity and putting of country and party before self that drew me to him in the first place. By stepping aside early to allow Michael Ignatieff’s selection as interim leader, something he was under no obligation to do, he again showed more respect and commitment to the party than, frankly, it has ever shown him."


Great post.

Gauntlet said...

Without wanting to take anything away from your analysis of Dion, which I think is accurate, I want to take issue with the idea that he was a consensus candidate. He wasn't. The amount of support that he had in the party afterward is a result of the fact that he was not a consensus candidate.

Elimination-based voting systems do not get you consensus candidates. They get you least-disliked candidates.

That's what Dion was. And still is. A guy that's hard to dislike, but should never have had that job.

Mike514 said...

A very commendable post. However, I disagree with this comment:

By stepping aside early to allow Michael Ignatieff’s selection as interim leader, something he was under no obligation to do, he again showed more respect and commitment to the party than, frankly, it has ever shown him.

While you're technically correct, let's not fool ourselves. Liberal MPs would have likely revolted en masse if Dion had chosen to stay until May, particularly after the infamous low-quality video. His decision to step down was mostly an attempt to avoid being unceremoniously pushed out the door in the days following that video.

Dion knew what would have come if he had stayed as leader, and wisely chose an early exit.

In any case, it's a small point, and shouldn't take away from your commendable post.

lyrical said...

Do you actually think that Mr. Dion's video was botched by accident? No way! There were just too many coincidences there. A person in his position would never be in charge of his own videotaping. His communications people would have that responsibility.

Oemissions said...

I and many Canadians left their NDP and Green Party to join the Liberals to support both Dion and the local candidate. Take a look at some very prominent Canadians who supported Dion.
Will they continue with the Liberal Party?
I can only speak for myself.Not ery likely next time, unless the Liberal Party has some kind of rebith. Even so, it is necessary for the NDP, Greens and CAP and Liberals to agree to a Coalition government agreement before and during the next election.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Demosthenes summed it up best in a comment on Calgary Grit's blog:

"He didn't support the coalition, he didn't support Dion, he spent over a year building his support behind the scenes and he's rewarded with an uncontested race by getting people to push Rae aside."

This is why all these stories are, to be honest, absolutely hilarious. The entire reason Dion was castigated as "weak" was because of the perception of division in the party. The perception of division was due to the incessant leaks by (what appeared to be) Ignatieff factionalist elites who didn't want to accept the 2006 rejection of their man by the--quickly fading--Liberal grassroots. Of course the party will look stronger! The whisper campaign won!

Now they've exploited a progressive deal they don't support, and will almost certainly rip up, to get around said grassroots. They used the argument of expediency and the promise of power (to be later ignored) to push both Leblanc and Rae out, install their guy in power, and de facto cancel the leadership race.

It's a deft bit of political maneuvering, I'll give it that. But it's doesn't smell very good, and it's the opposite of what the Liberals seemed to need.

mizdarlin said...

Hey BC'er
As a first-time viewer of your blog, I was pleased to see that T'rana hasn't sucked the West Coast penchant for critical thinking out of you yet.
Although I'm an ardent leftie who considers the NDP too right wing, I was also a Dion fan and was very sad to see that Harper's ugly tactics were so blatantly offensive and puzzlingly effective. I don't think the language issue was as much a problem as you do; one only has to consider Cretien's mangling of English vs his extreme and long-lasting popularity.
Still sad to se the demise of an honest, dedicated man; it is always sad, they are like hen's teeth in Canadian politics.
May Harper soon be dethroned!