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The Legend of Iggy the Liberal

28 Apr

A long, long time ago, not far from a river, close to a park, in a great big house called Stornoway, there lived a tall, thin man named Stéphane. He was the Leader of the Liberals.

It was a nice big house. It had a beautiful yard for his dog, Kyoto. And lots of closet space. And a cook. But Stéphane wanted to live down the road, in an even bigger house, with an even bigger yard, even closer to the river.

So he asked the people of the land to vote for his party. And for something called a Green Shift. And if all went according to plan, and if enough people liked him and his shift, and voted for his party, Stéphane would soon be packing up his bags and his dog, and maybe even his cook. And he’d be heading down to that bigger house by the river.

But the people didn’t really understand Stéphane’s Green Shift. They didn’t always really understand Stéphane himself, truth be told. Not nearly enough people liked him and his party. And not nearly enough people voted for him.

So he called a press conference and announced he was leaving his house for a different, smaller house, and he would let someone else from his party come live in Stornoway. But not for a long, long time.

Soon enough, though, Stéphane made one last risky bid for a move into the big house by the river. With the help of a shorter, balder, smiling man named Jack, and the support of another tall man named Gilles, Stéphane made an unexpected grab for power. And if it wasn’t for that meddling Governor-General, and a wonky video camera, it just might have worked.

But it didn’t work, and the people weren’t happy with Stéphane. They told the pollsters of the land that they liked his party even less than before. And the Liberals weren’t happy with Stéphane, and they convinced him to take his dog and banish himself from Stornoway forever.

The cook stayed behind to make meals for Stéphane’s replacement. It was another tall, thin man who hoped to move into the bigger house down by the road near the river. The new man was called Iggy,

Everyone knew Iggy wanted Stéphane’s job for a long time. He had been the runner-up to Stéphane in the last contest for the leadership of his party. But back then, Iggy was seen as too new, too divisive, too prone to gaffes, too snooty, and too unfamiliar with the land he wanted to lead because he had lived for many years in another kingdom far, far away over the sea.

But times had changed, and maybe Iggy had, too. He had developed a more common touch. He had become more adept at playing the games of politics. He had tasted a lot of rubber chicken and shaken a lot of hands in every fiefdom across the land.

Rivals for the succession – a sandy-haired man named Bob and a stocky young man named Dominic – stepped aside and gave Iggy a clear path to the leadership, not to mention the front-door keys to Stornoway, with its vast closet space, and its big yard, and its short distance from that bigger house down the road.

Soon, it grew darker across the land. Tradesmen began losing their jobs. Commerce became more difficult to practice. The treasuries faced great challenges. The Prime Minister of the land – who lived in that bigger house so coveted by Stéphane and Iggy – grew more and more unpopular.

The people told the pollsters of the land that they liked Iggy more and more. Soon he was just as popular as the Prime Minister himself.

But questions remained:

Was Iggy’s party really a national party anymore – did people all across the land support it enough, or was it only popular in select fiefdoms?

Were Iggy’s leadership and the Prime Minister’s fumbles enough for the party to rebuild, or was the prospect of power preventing the Liberals from conducting serious reflection about what they stood for?

What did Iggy stand for? His critics said he stood for whatever the last voter he spoke to wanted him to stand for. And then he stood for other things when he spoke to other voters.

The people across the land reserved judgment. The Liberals remained hopeful. And Iggy sat in Stornoway, plotting his next moves, and keeping his eye on the bigger house down the road by the river.

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Stéphane Dion, Joe Clark and John Tory

1 Nov

On the evening of Dec. 2, 2006, in a wide corridor of Montreal’s Palais des congrès, I bumped into a political lobbyist of my acquaintance.

Both of us were trudging slowly through the middle of a large, loud and excited crowd of people, everyone leaving the main hall of the convention centre and heading out the doors toward the charms of downtown Montreal Saturday night.

Not too much earlier, inside the main hall, Stéphane Dion stood on a confetti-laden stage, flanked by Jean Chrétien, John Turner, and Paul Martin, three former residents of 24 Sussex Drive.

As the music blared and Dion waved to the thousands of convention delegates who had just elected him as the newest – and perhaps unlikeliest – leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, he had every reason to believe he would one day also live in the same house, and hold the same title of Prime Minister, as had the men surrounding him.

After all, of the ten Liberals who preceded Dion as leader, only one – Edward Blake – had failed to become Prime Minister of Canada. And Blake’s leadership of the party came to an end in 1887.

Dion had just won a job that had provided a surefire ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office for almost twelve decades straight.

The delegates seemed as united as could be expected after a dramatic, emotion-laden convention that saw Dion go from fourth to first place over two days and four ballots.

He had come into the convention with the estimated support of about 15 per cent of the delegates, well behind front-runner Michael Ignatieff’s 28 per cent.

But on the final ballot, with only Dion and Ignatieff left standing, he beat the former front-runner 55 to 45 per cent.

He was a compromise candidate, sure, coming up the middle of a bitter, divisive rivalry between Ignatieff and Bob Rae. But as they streamed out of the convention hall, most delegates seemed happy with the choice, many of them won over by Dion’s fresh message of change, integrity and environmentalism. Some felt they had dodged a bullet by picking the best candidate to unite the party behind a new kind of politics and a new, greener vision of Liberalism.

My hard-bitten acquaintance in the crowded hallway wasn’t buying any of it. He had come to the convention as a Rae supporter, and was departing it shaking his head, unmoved by the victory of the bookish Dion.

“The Liberals,” he said to me moments after I offered my greetings, “just had their Joe Clark moment.”

Almost two years later, the comparison has proven apt. Dion, like Clark three decades earlier when he won the Progressive Conservative leadership, had few allies in his party, won the leadership by default when more charismatic and prominent rivals failed to earn enough delegate trust, and promptly developed a reputation as an honorable-but-bumbling leader with big ideas but few political smarts to implement them.

After leading his party in last month’s federal election to one of the worst electoral defeats in its history, and then reluctantly announcing he was stepping down from the leadership, Dion has joined Edward Blake as the answer to a newly rephrased political trivia question:

Who were the only two Liberal leaders who failed to become Prime Minister?

In his electoral campaign, Dion resembled not so much Joe Clark but more John Tory, the Ontario PC leader who crashed and burned in last year’s provincial election campaign.

Both Dion and Tory ran big policy ideas up the flagpole for voters – Tory’s was public funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools and Dion’s was the so-called Green Shift, which promised income tax cuts to balance out a new carbon tax that would help fight climate change – but neither leader bothered to check beforehand if members of his own party were saluting.

After Tory lost the election last year, here’s what I wrote about his campaign here:

Conviction does matter, of course. And yes, principles and policies also matter. But in the absence of politics – the process by which those-who-would-lead persuade those-who-would-be-led to follow them down any particular path – conviction and policies can be as hollow as… well… as hollow as John Tory’s campaign turned out to be.

The description fits Dion’s campaign, too.

Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills perceived that day by at least one clear-eyed observer in the crowd.

Politics in Quebec

3 Nov

Did you have a happy Hallowe’en?

Scratch that… did you have a scary Hallowe’en?

Adorableness trumped terribleness when it came to most of the little beasts that came knocking on my door this past Tuesday. And really, once you’ve been through a Hallowe’en or two in your life, the shivers and chills are few and far between.

For a real scare – the kind that creeps up on you and serves up feelings of helplessness, with a heaping side order of existential angst – nothing beat the Hallowe’en of eleven years ago.

Okay, that’s not exactly right. It was the e’en before Hallowe’en, one decade and one year past. All Hallow’s Eve’s… Eve. Oct. 30, 1995. The evening of the last Quebec referendum. Remember?

The Night The Country Almost Died.

Brings back a shiver or two, no?

After a tense – and yes, scary – referendum night, when a clear result didn’t emerge until almost every ballot was counted, the No side prevailed by a skeleton-thin margin of 50.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent. With an amazing 94 per cent of all five-million eligible voters casting ballots, only 54,288 votes separated the two sides.

Scary. Very scary.

And what about the underlying issue – Quebec’s place within Canada? That’s an issue that’s never really gone away. Canadians outside Quebec often get complacent about it when it slips from the headlines, but it has a way of sneaking up when you least expect it, knocking on the door and shouting “Boo!”

Lately, the Quebec question is once again prominent, mostly thanks to the current Liberal Party Leadership race. The Quebec branch of the federal party passed a motion that may come up for a vote at next month’s convention. The motion – which calls on the party to “officialize” the status of Quebec as a nation within Canada – has divided Liberals, with leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff supportive and Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion opposed.

Meanwhile, a new poll this week shows the sovereignist Parti Québécois slightly ahead of Premier Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal Party in voter intention for an election that many observers expect by next spring.

And what about that spooky, existential question? That same poll shows that if a referendum were held today, eleven years after the last one, it would be another nailbiter. 45 per cent of Quebecers would vote Oui.

Pretenders to the Throne

25 Sep

Remember him? Tall… blue eyes… prone to the occasional bout of hyperbole…

A year ago, Paul Martin was the Prime Minister of Canada. His minority government had recently survived a non-confidence vote, and it looked as if he might be able to hang on to the job for a while.

Now? By some accounts, he is still a busy guy. And former acquaintances still have things to say about him. But on Parliament Hill, he’s a little-seen, seldom-heard-from Opposition backbencher.

They say a week is a lifetime in politics. So a year would be… well… do the math.

Think back twelve months. Back before Bob Rae was a Liberal. Before David Emerson was a Conservative. Before Michael Ignatieff was living full-time in Canada.

One year ago, Stephen Harper looked as if he had blown his big chance. His attempt to bring down the government was thwarted by Belinda Stronach’s floor-crossing, press reviews said he was too angry to win power, and his party’s poll numbers brought little comfort.

Today, he surely looks back happily on what followed. Looking forward over the next year, though, may not be as comforting for Harper. Like Martin before him, he leads a minority government , a species whose life-cycle is more often measured in months than years.

Recent poll numbers offer no guarantee that his Conservative Party will win the majority government that every political party desires.

And have I mentioned that a year is a long time in politics? That anything can happen in that time? Like any minority government leader, Harper has no guarantee that he will even be in power in twelve months.

If Harper is no longer Prime Minister in a year’s time, then who will be? Most likely one of the current Liberal leadership candidates. Will it be Prime Minister Ignatieff? Prime Minister Rae? Prime Minister Dion? Prime Minister Kennedy? Prime Minister One-of-the-other-ones?

A year ago, what were all these Liberal leadership candidates doing? Different things, to be sure. But one thing none of them was doing was firing up the imaginations of Canadian voters as an obvious future leader of the Liberal Party. Speculation back then usually centred on names such as McKenna, Manley, Tobin and Rock.

Having trouble remembering those names? Well, you know what they say about a year in politics…