Saturday, February 10, 2007

can dion pull it together?

Dion's missteps leave some Liberals worrying
But Harper's example gives the party hope

Feb 10, 2007 The Star / James Travers

Stéphane Dion won the Liberal leadership without many IOUs. Now, with public opinion sliding toward Conservatives, Dion finds himself strangely indebted to Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.

How much he owes them won't be totalled until after the coming federal election. But it's clear that his predecessor and the Prime Minister have given Dion some of what he needs to control his party while defining his leadership: room to grow and the benefit of doubt.

Sure, that's counterintuitive. After all, Martin's Liberal legacy is defeat and division while Harper and the Conservatives didn't wait long before airing aggressive advertising spots framing Dion as weak.

Worse still for Liberals, fresh polls suggest the new leader is no superhero. Any Liberal improvement is in the margins and, if this week's survey results mark the beginning of a strong Conservative upswing, Harper will be tempted to ask for a stronger second mandate as early as this spring.

Ignoring those indicators and what they say about Dion's leadership is risky. Yet, in opposition politics, it's also true that patience is a virtue and time to mature invaluable.

Dion can thank Martin and Harper for dollops of both.

What Dion inherited is a party mopping up after civil wars. Martin's epic power struggle with Jean Chrétien, as well as the equally nasty one between Chrétien and John Turner, transferred to Liberals the old Tory behavioural patterns of circling the wagons to shoot inwards.

Now they are tired of fratricide. So tired that a caucus that didn't support Dion's leadership is doing its best to bury the hatchet – for once not in a leader's back.

Harper's contribution to Dion is different. It's optimism.

A couple of years back, there was lots of disparaging talk about the prospects for the man who is now Prime Minister. His political prognosis was so discouraging that mutterings were heard about change in the captain's quarters.

It's now conventional wisdom that Harper was as underestimated as expectations for Martin were over-inflated. Memories of those miscalculations are still fresh and the lessons from them are easily applied to a leadership dark horse who surprised almost everyone except himself by coming from fourth to finish first.

Similarities between two leaders with quite different political perspectives make those lessons particularly relevant. Both are wonks, socially awkward and, unlike many politicians, don't seem to change much when the cameras are switched off.

Those common characteristics give his party hope Dion won't become the second Edward Blake – the only Liberal leader never to become prime minister. But hope is fear's first cousin and Liberals looking forward to the election and back at their December Montreal convention can't shake the nagging worry that they made a mistake.

It's not that Dion isn't making comforting gestures. He's reaching out to leadership rivals, spreading responsibility through layers of advisers and shadow cabinet ministers and, in contrast to Harper's singular style, is positioning Liberals as a team.

So, what's the problem? It's the little and not so little things that forecast bigger trouble ahead.

Strip away the petty jealousies and personality conflicts and the core concerns are seen as managerial competence and political acumen. Liberals privately question if Dion's staff has the strategic smarts and inter-personal skills to quickly bring the party to campaign readiness.

And they worry that he's missing the instincts that bridge the great divide between leaders and winners. Of the two, the former is more easily fixed, the latter most visible. In fact, it's at the centre of the current test of wills over the environment.

Dion made tactical errors in repeatedly attacking Tories for stealing Liberal policies and Harper for changing his mind. By highlighting similarities, Dion effectively endorsed Conservative policies. And while the sincerity of Harper's conversion remains in doubt, Canadians who care about climate change can only be pleased that the Prime Minister has, for whatever reasons, seen the light.

Exacerbating the errors, Dion supports including the Green party's Elizabeth May in the next leaders' debate. Generous, yes, but why would Liberals want to add arguably the most credible national voice to the debate on the issue Dion is desperate to make his own?

None of these is fatal. But Liberals knew before this week's polls were published that Conservatives are back on their game and that the clock is ticking on the election as well as on Dion's leadership honeymoon.

Unwittingly, Martin and Harper loaned Dion time to grow. But it's a trusty axiom that a week in politics is an eternity.