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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.

Picking through election entrails

15 Oct

Suppose they held an election and nothing happened?

Not too much, anyway.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the 2.5-year-old minority Parliament to be unworkable.

In search of a more workable mandate, he violated his own fixed-election-date legislation to dissolve that Parliament and send Canadians to the polls for the third time in four years.

Five weeks, 300-million-dollars, one pooping puffin controversy, two roundtable debates, dozens of negative ads, and one international economic crisis later, did he get that mandate?

Well… kinda.

Sorta.

In his third kick at the can as party leader, Harper’s Conservatives gained a few seats, but still fell short of a majority government. And thanks to some ill-received policies and poorly executed strategies, the party failed to build upon its big Quebec breakthrough in the last election, once again winning ten seats in that province.

The NDP, under Jack Layton, also picked up a few more seats, but fell far short of the goal Layton publicly and repeatedly set. He said he was running for Prime Minister, but ended up once again as the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons.

With the help of some Conservative self-inflicted wounds, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois won by holding steady. Once again, the Bloc showed that rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated, as it won the lion’s share of Quebec seats for the sixth straight election. More than any other factor, it is the Bloc’s enduring ability to hold onto dozens of Quebec seats that accounts for the fact that Canadians have elected minority governments in three elections running.

The Green Party won a plethora of publicity and media attention, a seat at the table of the televised leaders’ debates for leader Elizabeth May, and in the end, exactly zero seats in the House of Commons for all its efforts.

And then there is the Liberal Party…

Oh, the Liberals…

It was one of the worst election results ever for the Grits, once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The Liberals won only eight seats west of Ontario, suffered a net loss of seats in their Atlantic Canada stronghold, and made some marginal gains in Quebec, where they continued to be almost exclusively limited to the island of Montreal.

But the most telling results for the Liberal Party came in Ontario. A decade ago, the party regularly won almost all of the available seats in this province. This time around, it didn’t even take most of those 106 seats.

Conservative candidates won almost half of all Ontario ridings, the NDP increased its seat count in the province by almost 50 per cent by taking away Liberal seats in Northern Ontario, and the Liberal Party was in retreat everywhere save its electoral fortress of Toronto.

Even in the country’s largest city, the Conservatives began showing signs of breaching the Liberal castle walls. They took several seats in the suburban 905 region just outside of Toronto.

And Conservative star candidate Peter Kent won the riding of Thornhill, which borders the city of Toronto.

Thornhill happens to be the riding with the largest per-capita Jewish population in the province. It also happens to be the one riding the provincial Progressive Conservative party picked up in their wretched campaign during last year’s Ontario election.

Picking through the entrails of this year’s federal vote, there were several other signs the Conservative Party has made some headway in their attempts to win over the support of the traditionally big-L-Liberal so-called ethnic vote.

The Conservatives took several ridings with diverse multicultural populations from the Liberals in Ontario and British Columbia. And in Toronto proper, ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, and Willowdale – ridings with significant minority-group populations that are usually among the safest Liberal seats in the country – featured much tighter races.

In 2006, Liberal Joe Volpe won Eglinton-Lawrence by defeating his Conservative rival by more than 11,000 votes. This time around, Volpe’s margin of victory was reduced to 2,200.

Within hours – minutes even – of the final vote count, quotes from anonymous Liberals began appearing in the media calling for the head of leader Stéphane Dion.

Fighting his first election as leader, Dion failed miserably to reverse his party’s slide of the past few years.

But the nearly bankrupt and disunited Liberals can ill-afford another lengthy, expensive and divisive leadership race.

After all, we’ve ended up with another minority Parliament, and Canadians may be going to the polls yet again before too long.

Honey and the Ethnic Vote

20 Oct

You may have heard that here in Ottawa, there was a big speech a few days ago.

And that the Liberals had a pretty bad week, with one bright spot on Friday.

And that there won’t be an election right away, but there may be one around the corner.

Almost lost in all this news was what macleans.ca called “The Great Greeting Card Controversy”.

Ontario Liberal MP Susan Kadis has been blasting the governing Conservatives for sending some of her Thornhill constituents – more than 35 per cent of whom are Jewish – greeting cards to mark Rosh Hashanah. She characterized these cards as a violation of privacy, and questioned how the government compiled the list of recipients.

Jason Kenney, the government’s point man on multiculturalism, responded by reading a letter sent to him from a Thornhill resident complaining about receiving a Rosh Hashanah card from …. Susan Kadis.

“We know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year,” Kenney said. “But it seems for that member it is the high holiday for hypocrisy.”

Political parties competing for ethnic votes? Not exactly headline news…

Scratch that. Here was the main headline in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, printed in big bold type across the entire front page:

Tories target specific ethnic voters

The article went on to describe – in detail – the Conservative strategy for wooing the votes of ethnic minorities, votes long considered the near-exclusive property of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Some of the article’s details were a bit … embarassing: A leaked document from the party stating that only 79 per cent of minorities are “accessible communities” for Conservatives.

Most of it was the sort of stuff you’d expect any party to do to win over the votes of any group: Attend community events; Translate campaign literature into minority languages; Canvas groups on the issues important to them; Seek out “natural links”, i.e. community leaders sympathetic to the party’s policies.

That last item suggests a potential pitfall for any political party – perhaps the Conservatives more than most, because this is not their traditional base of support: A tin ear for intra-group diversity.  A tendency to group every member of an ethnic group into one homogeneous blob.

In fact, debates within the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Sikh community, the Greek community, the insert-your-own-ethnic-group-here community, etc. are frequently more passionate and more polarized than debates among the public at large.

Politicians who listen only to those ethnic community leaders who scream the loudest – and whose views most closely match their own –  do so at their own risk. Those leaders may not represent the mainstream  (read vote-rich) points of view of the communities from which they come, as Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory learned in the recent provincial election. He met his Waterloo on an issue crafted to win over ethnic voters… failing in the process to win over many ethnic voters.

Coincidentally, the Globe and Mail article spotlighted the federal Conservatives’ efforts to woo the Jewish community in the same Thornhill riding that was ground zero for Rosh-Hashanah-gate. It is also, arguably, the only riding that John Tory won over with his faith-based school funding plan, although that issue has no resonance in federal politics.

Like many “ethnic” ridings across the country, Thornhill is traditionally considered a safe Liberal seat.  Kadis garnered 29,934 votes in the last election, almost 11,000 more than her Conservative opponent. So-called ethnic ridings also tend to be located in Canada’s biggest cities, where voters have proven to be the most resilient to Stephen Harper’s charms.

That has obviously been a source of frustration to the Conservatives, and their remedy seems to be… well, check out the Globe and Mail headline reproduced above.

According to the Globe report, the Conservatives believe there is “growing anecdotal evidence” that new immigrant and minority groups increasingly share the same values as their party – read traditional values.

But where the Jewish community of Thornhill, and elsewhere, is concerned, Conservatives may be barking up the wrong tree. For example, a  2004 survey of religious groups by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby shows that 64 per cent of Canadian Jews approved of same-sex marriage – second only to Buddhists (at 78 per cent).

A pitfall, again, may be a tendency for the party to listen to a vocal minority of small-c conservative Jewish activists, whose concerns do not necessarily match those of the broader community.

Last week, for example, a community group affiliated with the mainstream Canadian Jewish Congress sent out information to its local Jewish community about an event connected with this movement, which aims to build alliances between moderate Israelis and Palestinians, and is supported by many prominent Jewish leaders worldwide.

Via contacts in the right-leaning Bnai Brith organization, the Prime Minister’s Office caught wind of the fact that members of the Jewish community were sent this information, and sent out an email to the Congress, demanding to know who was responsible for sending such “garbage” and how this particular community group was funded. Of course, the group is largely funded by… members of the Jewish community

Not the best strategy for building bridges.

Lesson from Ontario: Politics matter

14 Oct

John Tory ran his campaign to become Premier of Ontario under the motto “Leadership Matters”. The lesson to be drawn from that disastrous campaign? Politics matter.

Tory’s campaign crashed and splintered on the shoals of his promise to extend public funding to non-Catholic faith-based schools. It was a policy born of conviction and principles, he repeatedly said.

He said it even after he reversed course late in the campaign and – in an attempt to quash a rebellion over the issue within the Progressive Conservative base itself – announced he would subject the policy to a free vote, which likely would have killed it before it could be implemented.

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.

Even with all the personal conviction in the world, you cannot lead a team of people without first convincing them to go in the same direction as you.

In the wake of the campaign results, there are even stories emerging that the very groups to whom this policy should have most appealed – religious and cultural groups who have been lobbying for funding for many years – were not completely onside.

They were supportive of the policy, but uncomfortable both with the way it was handled by Tory, and also with his apparent inability to foresee and quell the backlash it provoked.

Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives may have hoped the faith-based school funding issue would help them make electoral gains among different minority communities, but there was little evidence of that on voting day.

They won back the riding of Thornhill, with its large Jewish population, but failed to make any other inroads in Ontario’s many multicultural suburban and urban ridings. John Tory himself failed to win a seat in Don Valley West, exactly that sort of riding.

On the other side of the coin, Dalton McGuinty made history this election by becoming the first Liberal Premier of Ontario in seven decades to win back-to-back majorities. But insomuch as he accomplished this feat by exploiting Tory’s mishandling of the faith-based school funding issue, it is worth noting that his party’s election strategy did little to promote the “social cohesion” he said he was defending.

By explicitly connecting faith-based schools to the “strife, struggle and controversy” found on the streets of Western Europe, where debates over multiculturalism have occasionally turned violent in recent years, McGuinty turned up the heat and emotions on the issue. He has credibly been accused of using coded language to appeal to majority fears of minority groups. Especially Muslims.

At the same time, the Liberal leader never clearly answered questions about his own contradictory position against religious school funding, except when it comes to Roman Catholic schools – a defense of the Ontario public education status quo, which has been condemned by a committee of the United Nations.

It served the Liberals well as a short-term strategy. By obfuscating their own contradictions, they may have attracted voters who were opposed to funding any faith-based schools, including Roman Catholic.

In the wake of John Tory’s experience, it is unlikely any mainstream political party will want to touch this issue again for many years. But they may not have a choice.

Opinion polls show a rising backlash not only against extending funding to non-Catholic schools, but also against perpetuating the Catholic separate school system itself.

So far, the only political party in agreement with that sentiment is the Green Party of Ontario, which did not win any seats this election, but did increase its vote more than any other party.

As long as one faith’s schools are funded to the exclusion of others, the issue will remain on the table. And so long as it does remain, the future status of all religious schools – including Catholic separate schools – is uncertain.

Grits: Paranoia strikes deep…

5 Oct

A sign of the chaotic state of the Liberal Party of Canada these days may be a heightened receptiveness to unfounded rumors.

Yesterday, Liberal BlackBerrys all over Parliament Hill buzzed with an email originating from a senior party member stating  former cabinet minister Joe Volpe was about to cross the floor to the Conservatives.

The rumor probably grew out of news this week that Volpe supported the faith-based school funding policy of Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory. But to suggest he would go from that to jumping ship to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives raises a few obvious questions:

Why would Volpe do this after Tory backed down on his proposal?

Why would Volpe cross the floor of the House of Commons over a provincial issue?

Volpe is the longtime MP for one of the safest Liberal seats in the country – why would he want to commit political suicide?

Shortly after the first email, a second one buzzed into Blackberrys across the Hill – this one from the Liberal Whip’s office. It read:

I have just spoken with Joe.  The suggestion that he would be anything but a Liberal is absolute fabrication. Hope this puts the issue to rest. 

And everyone went back to waiting for the next crisis…

The Religious Education… Timebomb?

1 Oct

John Tory announced today that if he is elected Premier, he will subject his campaign-defining faith-based-school-funding proposal to a free vote of MPPs.

The announcement does a couple of things:

1) It mothballs a promise Tory has repeatedly described as one of principle and fairness. Probably for good. Even if today’s gambit defies the odds and turns around his party’s fortunes, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where faith-based funding would win a free vote in a legislature almost certain to have a majority of members – of all parties – opposed to the policy.

One possible scenario – if Tory should win (a very big “if”, as a poll today suggested he may lose his own riding) – would have him introduce the measure, allow it to lose a free vote, claim a moral victory and move on. That’s what Stephen Harper did last year on same-sex marriage.

In any scenario, it’s hard to spin the announcement as anything other than a de facto abandonment of the proposal.

2) Today’s announcement acknowledges Tory’s failure to communicate the merits of his policy not only to Ontarians, but to his own party. Principled or not, Tory’s handling of the matter has rightfully raised serious questions about his political smarts.

Before the campaign began, I described this issue as a potential minefield for all parties. In retrospect, Tory stepped on all the mines and gave Dalton McGuinty a clear path through.

The Liberal strategy has walked a tightrope between muddying the contradictions of the party’s own position (against faith-based funding, except when it comes to Catholic schools), while painting the Conservative proposal as nothing other than a scheme to undermine public education.

It may have been good election strategy. But in the long run, it may prove to be a bad strategy for achieving what the Liberals say is their goal: The defense of the Ontario public education status quo.

After dominating the campaign, the debate will not likely go away. In fact, it has proven to be a timebomb of an issue that explodes every so often in Ontario, as long as one faith’s schools are funded and others’ are not.

Maintaining that status quo ensures the inevitability of another explosion of the debate. And – as one commentator argues – the collateral damage next time may be the Roman Catholic school system itself.

Reasonably accommodating?

26 Sep

Less than a year ago, when everyone knew a provincial election was imminent, I asked a well-known Quebec journalist to assess the chances of Mario Dumont’s right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec party.

The journalist told me the ADQ was “fading away” from the political scene – so much so that Dumont had jokingly worn a “Hello, My Name is Mario” badge on his jacket at a recent event in Quebec City.

He predicted Dumont would quit provincial politics following another disappointing electoral showing, and would run as a Conservative Party candidate in the next federal vote.

I hope that journalist didn’t put any money on his prediction.

In fact, when the provincial vote finally did take place in March, anyone who bet on the results almost certainly would have lost their wager.

The first minority government in Quebec since the 19th century?

The Parti Québécois reduced to third-party status in the legislature?

Mario Dumont becoming Leader of the Opposition, only a few seats short of taking power with a group of faceless, experience-less backwoods backbenchers?

Who knew?

Not me. Not you. None of the prominent prognosticating political pundits in the province predicted this possibility.

How did Dumont go from being a political has-been to a Premier-in-waiting?

Probably by owning the so-called “reasonable accommodation” issue, which has come to dominate public affairs in Quebec, and is becoming prominent in the rest of Canada.

It’s not a new issue: Debates over the assimilation of minority groups and the nature of multiculturalism are as old as immigration itself, and bubble under the surface of many other issues in the public sphere.

The debate boiled over earlier this year in Hérouxville, a small, largely homogeneous Quebec town that garnered international headlines by passing a resolution aimed at largely non-existent foreign “new arrivals” to the town. The resolution banned such things as stoning women to death and burning at the stake.

While Premier Jean Charest dismissed Hérouxville as an isolated incident, Dumont took up the cause, positioned himself as the champion of old-stock Quebec values, and rode that position all the way into the opposition leader’s office in Quebec City.

Charest, meanwhile, created a commission to travel the province and look into the reasonable accommodation question (and also – charged Chantal Hébert – to avoid having to take a political stand on the issue)

Led by two academics, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the commission is in the middle of public hearings that – according to one account – resemble “a roving road show that has given an open mike to anyone who wants to muse out loud about religion and minorities”.

The reasonable accommodation issue is not limited to provincial politics in Quebec. In the lead-up to last week’s by-elections, federal parties were falling all over each other to attack the Chief Electoral Officer’s decision to allow Muslim women to vote without lifting their veils – a decision based on laws those very same parties wrote.

The Prime Minister – whose party appeals to the same voters in Quebec as Dumont’s – even interrupted an official visit to Australia to blast Elections Canada. His party, of course, subsequently did very well in the two by-elections held in the Quebec heartland.

Of course, this is hardly a Quebec-only issue. There are similar debates all over the democratic world.

In Ontario, the faith-based-school funding debate that is dominating the current provincial election campaign represents another battle over reasonable accommodation. In this case, how far should the education system go to accommodate minority religious groups? Some of the language used by the Ontario Liberals in the campaign – warning against “segregation” and threats to social cohesion – is certainly Dumont-like.

It’s not a debate that will disappear anytime soon. An SES poll released this week shows reasonable accommodation is very much a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians.

Will politicians continue to exploit that concern? You can bet on it.