Dawn of Dion : win could leave us in the grip of a bleak tory future

Dawn of Dion : Sex, booze and pamphlets .

Dawn of Dion : Sex, booze and pamphlets

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Montreal – Liberals usually exhibit an uncanny nose for power, but in choosing Stéphane Dion as their new leader, they’ve behaved with uncharacteristic abandon.

Too bad they waited until now to do it, because, as also-ran Ken Dryden observed in his Friday-night convention speech, Twenty years ago when you changed governments, nothing changed very much. Now everything does,’ he said, referring to the right-wing ideologues who have crashed the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, Liberal delegates declined to meet the needs of the moment. In reality, they only had one election-ready candidate with the potential to expand the traditional Lib base into progressive territory – and that’s Bob Rae.

Instead, they chose a leader who is persona non grata in his home province, exudes even less emotion than Harper and has the English skills of Jean Chretien but none of his populist charm.

Maybe the honeymoon reflected in the Monday-morning polls will last. But the reaction of delegates on the floor of the Palais des Congrs indicates that affection for the new leader runs shallow. As Dion takes the stage in victory, I watch delegates in the other camps stand stunned as if they’re looking at a car accident on the 401. This most unsettling ending is a result of the narrow interests that motivate so many of the steps and mis-steps here at the Palais. Consider, for example, members of the Ignatieff crew, a young crowd with a disproportionate number of lawyers – exactly the sort who’d find jobs in an Iggy administration.

Many of them are taking part in their first leadership convention, and, alas, it shows in their clumsy attempts to bring delegates from other camps to their guy. Rather than tip their hat to the targeted delegate’s chosen candidate, the Iggy types immediately launch into their aggressive sales job.

“They don’t seem like Liberals,’ one Dryden supporter tells me in the line at Tim Hortons after one such overture. “They only care about Ignatieff.’

Then there’s Dion kingmaker Gerard Kennedy. “Who could a food bank guy go to except to a former NDP premier?’ one delegate asks after Kennedy draws on his work for the poor yet again on Friday night. But shortly before noon the next day, it’s not to Rae that Kennedy heads, but to a former minister under Jean Chretien.

The former Ontario education minister explains that his sashay across the convention floor is caused by his desire to promote renewal in the party. On Friday night Kennedy proclaims, “We have to regain the trust of Canadians,’ as Jean Chretien, on whose watch the sponsorship scandal took place, sits a few rows away.

It’s the same worry that he’s highlighted to me and dozens of other reporters during the campaign. But Dion is a curious vehicle for such a concern. For one thing, he’s a Chretien loyalist through and through. For another, Adscam hurts the Libs most of all in Quebec, the province where Dion is reviled not only by the populace but by his own party members.

And the new leader has focused his campaign not on party renewal but on the need to deal with climate change.

Either Ignatieff or Rae — neither of whom was in the Chretien cabinet and both of whom are fresh faces in the party — would have been better placed to be Kennedy’s renewal leaders.

But the Liberals have no monopoly on self-interest here. The posse of NDPers in attendance, including Olivia Chow, are hoping against hope that Rae will not emerge the winner and spinning as fast as they can to try to make sure he won’t. They’re eager to dish to any microphone they can find about Rae’s sorry record as premier of Ontario’s only NDP government, seemingly oblivious to how his incompetence reflects on them.

But the biggest threat to the NDP is also the candidate who comes closest to what the Harper moment requires: a candidate who could knit together a progressive Liberal-NDP consensus and provide an attractive electoral alternative to the Harper Conservatives. What makes him unpalatable to some Liberals — his NDP past — makes Rae ideal for the task at hand.

It’s not that Rae doesn’t bear some responsibility for his own demise. He ran a surprisingly cautious campaign, as if fearing that displays of political passion would remind Liberals of the NDP past he has foresaken. And for his crucial Friday-night speech, he ditches podium and script and goes “without a net,’ Trudeau style. But it’s one of his flattest campaign performances, and at times it seems as if he’s lost the thread.

Perhaps most serious of all, for such a monied campaign peopled by political pros like Rae’s brother John, the effort lacks crucial effective floor organization. But for all its deficiencies, the Rae campaign is a practical response to the power shift that’s made Alberta the country’s new ecomomic centre.

I’m struck by how many of the leadership speeches could be given by Jack Layton — whether it’s Scott Brison on investing in green energy technology or Rae talking about child poverty. True, no one talks about changing labour laws to make it easier for unions to organize workers, but Layton doesn’t very much either.

The closer together the NDP and the Liberals move policy-wise, the more competitive they become on the electoral battleground. It’s not likely to be any different in the next election, when the Dion Libs and the Layton NDP will likely try to out-green each other, leaving Stephen Harper laughing all the way to a majority.

Maybe there will be a happier ending and Dion and Layton will end up in minority government, one supporting the other and providing the good government that sometimes emerges when majority results do not.

Certainly, the Liberals have given us less photogenic leaders than this knapsack-carrying academic committed to dealing with global warming. But there may be a bleaker scenario, one in which it’s not only the Libs and the social democrats who are defeated, but the progressive Canadian consensus along with it.

Four more years of Stephen Harper? If there was ever a time for a citizens’ movement to bring the opposition parties to their senses, this is it.


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