For the past fifteen months and a bit so much of Canadian politics has focused around Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. The NDP has clearly moved into a full-on press to squeeze the Liberals out by focusing their attacks on Dion, from the Commons to the by-election trail, with attention being paid to campaigning against Dion himself in Toronto Centre, as Jeff Jadras of “A BCer in Toronto” posted. The Conservative posture has been a resolute anti-Dion campaign, a shift from 2006’s anti-Liberal approach. Even Dion’s erstwhile partner, Elizabeth May of the Greens, has raised questions about Dion in the wake of his approach of Abstentia totalis. (The Bloc we can safely set aside: Stéphane Dion will never make their Christmas Card list. For Blockers, the Clarity Act is original sin redux.)
Add to this Jane Taber’s sideswipe over funds in this morning’s Globe & Mail — an article that immediately sent noted Dion supporter Jason Cherniak to the keyboard to illustrate Dion’s selflessness at fundraising for everyone other than himself — and the incessant jokes passed about Dion’s ability to make a decision and hold to it, about how Pâques est supérieure au principe, and the like and you really do have to wonder, sometimes, how he stands it all.
Well, whether through an election defeat (should his courage ever find its way to the House during a division with enough of his colleagues in tow or 19 October 2009 come in due course), through a Party revolt at their fall gathering, through a well-timed stab in the back by Ignatieff on one side and Rae on the other, or through his own decision to stop being everyone’s favourite punching bag, the day will come when Dion is gone. What might this mean for the country?
(Incidentally, I do think it fair to say that the odds on Stéphane Dion ever being able to become “Right Honourable” as a Liberal leader on the Government benches are so long as to be out of reach. Getting there from here — there is no fate more sure to seal a politician’s future as “the former” than to be the butt of continuing public ridicule [the Rt. Hon. C. Joseph Clark, PC, is the exception that proves the rule, and it took the complete and obvious misgovernance of Pierre Trudeau, coupled with Trudeau having run out the electoral clock to the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute, to create Clark’s minority win], and Dion gets as much ridicule per day as Clark did in a week. He may salvage Official Opposition status; he will not bring the Liberals out on top.)
Well, for Liberals, of course, the prospect of a new leader means that, as with any party faced with the chance to put a fresh face forward, there is hope. The trouble — for the Liberals — with this is that it once again subordinates a much needed Liberal debate about what the party stands for, how it differs from the rest of the divided left, how it differs from Harper’s move of the Conservative Government into the soft centre of the Canadian political spectrum, how it would propose programmes in the face of the Harper Government’s stripping away of the hoard of spare cash and truckloads of replacement cash generated each year by intentional eleven-figure surpluses to the fire storm of leadership candidates competing for delegates, raising money for those campaigns, and yet another convention. Lots of coverage, yet, but the holes in that party that plague Dion’s tenure and reduce the Liberals to a group of screaming toddlers rather than (other than the accident of Dan McTeague with his private member’s approach to budget making) proponents of much of anything will still exist, and still need patching.
Make no mistake, this lack will continue to haunt the party. A party without a solid core tends to waffle all over the landscape, held hostage to the last person who’d never met a microphone, camera or reporter’s tape recorder they didn’t like. The lack of a solid core reduces the party’s appeal to historical labels and memories of yesteryear. The damage done to the Liberal brand through this lack, from the stay-in-power for no reason other than staying-in-power of the late Chrétien years (when multiple Red Books with the same promises exposed the lack of interest in ideas), to the everything’s-a-priority of the Martin years (when too many commitments made none of them worth anything), to the explicit failure to deal with policy in 2006 … 2007 … and into 2008 has left the vacuum at the heart of Gritland clear for all to see.
Canadians are, paradoxically, a deeply conservative people — not conservative in the party sense, but conservative in the sense that we don’t change easily. Much of the Liberal strength that remains has its source in this multi-generational source. But all things do eventually erode, and the underpinnings of Liberal strength began their erosion under Trudeau with his disdain for the party and its local needs. Mighty oaks look strong until the day they are toppled by a storm, when at last their hollow heart is exposed. Without an attempt to build new, solid wood, the Liberal tree is in danger of falling.
The second major change waiting in the wings is that the raison d’être of the Liberal party has always been about power and access to its fruits. This has led to its sources of funds (and their concentration, historically) and indeed to its past power to attract those of other persuasions to change parties and “come to where the action is”. But this sword also cuts both ways: when out of power, and when prospects for improvement are not there (what issue, pray tell, despite all the sound and fury of the great play staged in Ottawa, would rally hope the way fighting the FTA did for Turner’s Liberals in 1988, thus preserving the party through to 1993 and the resumption of power aided and abetted then and thereafter by the immolation of the Progressive Conservatives on the sword of regionalism) wouldn’t those simply seeking the fruits of power shift their attentions to those in power?
But the demise of Dion will also throw Harper’s Conservatives into disarray — the inclination of today’s party is to fight an enemy but to immediately demonise the next Liberal Leader will backfire, as none of the likely winning candidates are so obviously able to be picked on as Dion was, nor do they have the record as a Minister to start from. The NDP, too, would have to start all over again, for they have failed to say why someone should be a New Democrat; they merely say “don’t be a Liberal”. Dion’s departure will also give the Greens the opportunity to move away from their misguided link to Dion — which was highly personalised — and may, indeed, topple May in the process.
Canadians, therefore, are likely to see all their parties lose their way even further when Dion goes. The worst habits will be reinforced; the system will not be recovered. We, therefore, have not only been the losers by this disastrous period in Canadian politics; we will continue to pay the price for it for years to come.
We deserve better, but that would require the Conservatives to change their approach. Pit bulls seldom become friendly Labradors. We are living in a world of excess that will run its course: hubris through ate to nemesis.
We are not in the hands of the Fates, but the Furies, and Dion’s tenure threatens to set off a Götterdammerung for Canada.