Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part II)

Yesterday, in the first part of this article, we dealt with the Greens, NDP and Bloc. Today, let’s turn to the Liberals; tomorrow, the Conservatives.

Liberals Cannot Be Led By Reason Alone

In a front-page story this morning, The Globe and Mail discusses the difficulties the Liberals are facing in their Québec wing. “[Dion] has no instinct”, as Liza Frulla, the former Heritage Minister, put it. This may well be true — certainly Stéphane Dion’s shifts between threat, bluster and invective followed by abstentious quiet, his failures in Outremont and Desenthé-Missinippi-Churchill River with appointed candidates, and the general disarray portrayed by various caucus members in their press quotes and blogs over the last fifteen months do suggest a person who is trying, but not succeeding, at marshalling his party and preparing for the challenges of a general election. There are many — including Dion himself — who hold to the thought of “once Canadians get to know him, they will support him”. Alas, after all this time, there is the slight possibility that we have come to know him.

There is little question in my mind but that Dion is an intelligent man. Not only that, but his intelligence is that of academic success and reasoned argument. Those who believe we still need to get to know him base this, I believe, in large measure upon someone who no doubt shines in small settings, able to carry a scintillating conversation over dinner, or (en français) engage in the cut-and-riposte of laying out a position, then dealing with the questions that follow.

Some of the comments heard from Dion over this time — about having a team, listening to caucus and advisors, etc. — are, I believe, genuine. He does expect a reasoned discussion, and, through the processes of reason, a consensus to emerge, which all will then support.

Alas, this is politics, and, unlike another former professor turned cabinet minister before him, Pierre Trudeau, Dion lacks the capability to handle the other sides of politics: the reaching out and mobilising a crowd, the balance between passion about an issue and shrillness about it (in this, he shares the harsh light that also falls on Elizabeth May), and a sense of how to make people work with him and for him, especially people with their own power base, their own agendas and their own ambitions. (Effectively it was only John Turner whom Trudeau could not keep on side [what is it with Finance Ministers and unbridled ambition coupled with a sense of entitlement, whether this be Turner-Trudeau, Martin-Chrétien or Brown-Blair?].)

Whatever is missing remains missing, and is now unlikely to be discovered and put to work.

This says that it is not Dion’s fractured English that is at fault, or the forces of other leadership candidates refusing to do their jobs (in Québec, in particular) or any of the other common thoughts about him. He has, of course, run himself up the flagpole to flutter in the breeze by the policy of election avoidance followed under his leadership, especially in 2008, but most of that is from his attempts to act indignant in Question Period. Poseurs for the cameras are easily exposed in the harsh light of the kleigs as ingenuine: we sense that, whatever Dion is, this is simply an act.

And a bad one, for Dion (unlike Trudeau, or his mentor Chrétien) is unable to suspend his critical thinking and play the role with the wholeness needed to succeed. If we found ourselves wondering at Paul Martin’s use of the “Harper wants troops in Canadian cities” television spot during the 2006 election, we at least could blame his team for it trying to respond to their leader’s need to hold power; Chrétien we would have believed instantly as having designed the spot. But for Dion, we would wonder if it was just another case of the last advisor through the door having bent him in a new direction. This is what a tin ear for political life brings you.

Whether the Liberals decide to bite the bullet and dump Dion now to present a new leader for a 2009 election, or whether they go with him into the next election and, from the Opposition benches again, go through Leadership II afterward, is somewhat irrelevant, for the time has run out. A putsch — and there is little else to call it — would create even deeper fractures in a party already rent by nearly four decades of them. Lose with the new leader, lose with the existing one, the result will no doubt be the same. For the other missing link in Liberal fortunes is the one we might well have expected Dion to have done something about: policy.

Over the years, the Liberal Party has been quite proud of its “big tent”, able to attract both Progressive Conservatives, the odd Reform/Canadian Alliance soul, and New Democrats to join them. There is nothing particularly wrong with the notion of a party able to attract people from other parties: what difference is there, really, between you deciding to give up your existing party membership and take out membership in another, and an MP crossing the floor, save only that your act does not appear in television footage and in the front section of the newspaper as a result? But, starting with Trudeau, policy began to take a back seat. Other initiatives were responses; all that mattered was his constitutional obsession. Turner didn’t have a clear policy, until the opportunity to oppose the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement handed him one: once the 1988 election was lost, the party was again effectively policy-less. The Chrétien-era “Red Books” (aside from mostly being ignored once the election was over) were more policy grab-bags — a little of this, a dash of that — than anything focused and coherent, and the thing we remember his governments most for now (other than scandalous behaviour far beyond anything Dion and company have attempted to dredge up in this Parliament) is curing us of deficit spending and eating into the interest burden of the accumulated national debt, something that was forced on him and did not come out of the much-bally-hooed Livre Rouge. Martin, in turn, had no clear policy — instead, he had hundreds of them, all equally vital and important: in other words, still dipping into the pay-off and grab-bag method, but with no restraint on his words.

The Liberals, in other words, have fallen out of the habit of needing policy. At their Montréal Convention in 2006, they ignored the whole question and shunted it off the agenda: there was a leader to elect! In Liberal thinking, we will respond to the leader, and accept whatever dross and floss he pulls out of his bag of tricks.

This, apparently, is something Dion cannot do. He commissioned, instead, a proper policy review, one that has produced less than nothing in the public eye. As a result, his party is defined by a vacuum: all we have to work with is the acting we see in Question Period.

It is the combination of the core Liberal vote — those people for whom a party choice is not a question (all parties have such a core: where it is distributed across the country defines likely lower bounds for seats if all else fails) — and those who so despise Stephen Harper that Stéphane Dion could eviscerate live kittens at his desk in the Commons and it would not sway them to reconsider their support that hold Liberal polling numbers up today, and it is the complete and utter lack of a coherent vision and policy for consideration that keeps them low.

It takes more than reason to do this. People who opposed Dion’s leadership bid will not fully come on side simply in the name of party unity (this is why even amongst the Liberal blogging community, Jason Cherniak’s exhortations on Dion’s behalf for everyone to sit down, shut up and get on the team are laughed at and pooh-poohed). They commit their hearts to the new leader because the new leader sells them on his future vision.

Alas, “Dion is not a Salesman”. The Liberals are stuck. With it, Canadians are stuck, for a vibrant and coherent Opposition with a positive vision of their own makes for better government, too.

Tomorrow: a look at the Conservatives (who have their own set of issues).

One response to “Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part II)

  1. what is worse for Dion is his new addition to his team-Bob Rae, a man who almost bankrupted Ontario. On one hand you have the liberals that stole from the Nation and Bob Rae who nearly bankrupted Ontario.

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