Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dion's win good for Liberals, and the country

VICTORIA - You should feel good about Stephane Dion's fourth-ballot victory to become Liberal leader, even if you loathe the party.
Dion has the usual mix of strengths and weaknesses. But he offers the Liberals a relatively fresh start. He was never implicated in the sponsorship scandal that so disgusted Canadians. He was never associated with the destructive internal party fighting that reached its peak in the Martin-Chretien wars.
More Canadians will now feel they have a real choice in the next election, which could be only months away.
That means Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will have to work harder to sell their policies, instead of relying on Canadians' loathing for the Liberals to guarantee support.
That's good. Our system works best when there is real competition for the chance to form government. Parties have to justify - and moderate - their policies to win voters. There's a real debate, leading to better decisions. That all breaks down, as British Columbians saw in 2001, when one party collapses.
Dion is not a newcomer. He's been a Quebec MP for a decade. But he was untouched by the sponsorship scandal and has a reputation for integrity. He served in senior cabinet posts under both Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, a relatively rare achievement in that polarized world.
And, critically, he wasn't seen as the candidate of the Liberal party old guard - the people responsible for its current low status - that had largely lined up behind Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. (That wasn't true in B.C., where the Martinite political operatives largely backed DIon.)
That was important. Ignatieff and Rae did well on the convention's first ballot. But they stalled. Delegates sent a message that they weren't interested in the choices of the establishment.
Of course it's not quite that easy to break with the past.
Dion's acceptance speech confirmed that the environment is going to be one of the themes he will hit hard in the coming months.
He has serious green credentials. As federal environment minister Dion championed the Kyoto accord and received good marks for his efforts. He'll be betting - rightly - that Harper is out of touch with Canadians on climate change. Dion is such an enthusiast he even named his pet husky Kyoto.
But the Conservatives will be able to go right back at him. Dion may have championed the deal, but he was also in cabinet when the Liberals failed to take any serious efforts to meet Canada's commitment.
Dion faces other challenges. There's been some fretting about yet another Liberal leader from Quebec, especially one with a relatively low national profile.
And there are worries about his ability to build support within that province. As the point man in 2000 on the federal Accountability Act, which imposed terms for any future votes on separatism, Dion took a lot of flak.
That's a plus in the rest of Canada, establishing his federalist credentials. (His convention performance suggests fears about his English skills are overblown.)
And Dion's economic policies are still largely unknown, although he will point to the record of growth under the Liberal governments.
But the good news is that Canadians now have a real choice in the next election between two parties capable of forming government. (That is not to discount the significance of the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and even Greens.)
And they will be offered significantly different policy choices.
Not just on the environment. Dion has called for an honourable withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, arguing too little is being accomplished at too great a cost. No matter where Canadians stand on the issues, they should welcome a real, vigorous debate on the mission we have asked our troops to undertake.
Those kinds of debates are much more likely with Dion's victory. That makes it a step forward for all Canadians.
Footnote: Dion is 51 and was a hotshot academic in Quebec before entering politics. He's widely seen as very bright and hard-working, well-prepared before he tackles issues. Critics complain he can be close-minded when he believes he is right and lacks charisma. Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin describes him as Stephen Harper with a French accent.


Anonymous said...

and so it control over the liberal party and possibly anothe rprime minister from quebec.

seems we have not figured out that the real scandle has been the amount of money spent fighting between the bloc, parti quebecois and federal liberals all over a supposed problem, while the rest of canada is led down the garden path.
in fact the problem with the liberals is they have never had a solid platform, just good old fashioned media hype on how important they are.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the position around the Bloc. They are a legal party duly elected. so it's fairly clear the folks in Quebec believe they are doing what they were elected to do. It's pretty basic math. Quebec has a lot of seats so the other parties scramble to get them.

off-the-radar said...

another great column. Thanks Paul!

its so enjoyable to read your well-written, reasonable, balanced and interesting pieces.