Friday, May 23, 2008

Little to lose

Dion’s early days not unlike Chrétien’s last

At first blush, one would be hard-pressed to identify many similarities between Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion, other than they are both Québec federalists. Chrétien is a gregarious, instinctual, lifelong politician who prized winning elections and a clean desk, and was so relaxed that he went home for lunch every day while Parliament was sitting. Dion is a quiet professor who probably toted his own lunch in his backpack, and brought thoughtful letter-writing back to politics.

But as I see Dion rush headlong into his roll-the-dice carbon tax election, I can’t help but be reminded of the last days of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, characterized by his declaration to the effect of “I am not running again. I can do what I want.” (Not much of an endorsement for consulting voters before acting – i.e. democracy – but never mind.)

After Chrétien announced in the summer of 2002 that he would not run for a fourth term, he unleashed a whirlwind of hard-left initiatives, including the legalization of marijuana (or de-criminalization, if you prefer) and political finance reforms, including banning corporate and union donations to parties (later on, the Harper government extended the ban to ridings and candidates also).

It is debatable whether Chrétien did these things because (1) he really believed in them, or (2) he wanted to damage Paul Martin, whose leadership he was now powerless to prevent. Either way, he was indifferent to the effects these policies would have on the Liberal party. “Après moi le deluge,” as they say. As Elections Canada’s quarterly financial returns show, banning corporate donations continues to harm the Liberal party to this day.

In the case of Dion, despite reports that he is deaf to most advice, I suspect that he has at least figured out this much: the Liberal party is going to give him but one chance to win an election. After the next election, Stéphane Dion will either be Prime Minister, or an unemployed professor.

In the leadership, Dion was the first-ballot choice of just 18% of Liberal delegates. He has few supporters in caucus. He has little base in the party and has been unable to build one (which is near-impossible while you're leader, anyway). He has a limited personal fundraising capacity, evidenced by his stubborn leadership debt. The party’s overall fundraising has continued to suffer. Liberals fared worse than they should have in the by-elections that have occurred on Dion’s watch, partly because of Dion’s insistence on hand-picking two of the candidates.

There were rumblings about somehow getting rid of Dion last fall, after the disastrous Outremont by-election, but Liberals realized that there is simply no legal or practical way to force out a leader before he’s fought his first election. And so the Liberal caucus became quietly resigned to the notion that Dion would be allowed his one grab at the brass ring.

But surely Dion has deduced that many in the caucus have little enthusiasm for him, and are concerned mainly with keeping their own seats. And Michael Ignatieff’s and Bob Rae’s supporters have made little secret of their readiness and desire to see their guy run for leader again. Soon.

Should Dion be foolish enough to contest a leadership review after a losing election, the Ignatieff and Rae camps would likely make short work of him. (The more likely scenario is that a group of eminent Liberals would approach Dion and, in exchange for retiring his remaining leadership debt, secure his resignation.)

But instead of making Dion more cautious, these intramural heel-nippings seem to have made him less so. The stark reality of what awaits him post-election is actually a bizarre incentive for Dion to use his one chance to “do what he wants,” whether it’s carbon taxes, reviving a national day care scheme, or even raising the GST. If he wins, he may get to implement a platform he believes in. If he loses, any fallout for the Liberal party will be someone else’s problem.

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