Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dion's aggressive tone

Dion's aggressive tone raising eyebrows
Liberal leader's new partisan posture more like Harper's, less like the man party members chose at their convention
Feb 10, 2007 The Toronto Star

OTTAWA–
Neither man would probably want to see it this way, but as this 2007 political season is shaping up, it seems that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion are trying to borrow style points from each other.

They're both in the business of defining – or in Harper's case, redefining – themselves in the public eye.

Ever since the Liberals chose an environmentally friendly new leader in December, it seems that Harper and his government have been trying to rub off some of their own hard edges. It's still a work in progress. The words "environment" and "friendly" aren't exactly the ones that spring to mind when describing the 1-year-old Harper regime.

At the same time, however, Dion looks like he's trying to toughen himself up, become more Harper-like with sharp displays of partisan bite.

In essence, along the spectrum of hard-versus-soft leadership, Harper and Dion started 2007 at opposite ends. It was Harper, the tough, adversarial economist, against Dion, the mild, collegial environmentalist. But in recent weeks, it looks like Harper and Dion have been slowly inching toward each other on that leadership-style spectrum.

Harper's conversion is being amply scrutinized, almost on a daily basis. It's Dion's that merits a closer look at this early stage.

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Some observers around Parliament Hill have been surprised that Dion, who seemed so mild-mannered, almost a symbol of the anti-politician when he first took on the leadership, has adopted such an aggressive, partisan posture in his opening performances in the Commons these past two weeks.

He calls Harper names – "climate-change denier," for one – and sweepingly condemns him for sins like trying to "sabotage and paralyze the world." And just as Harper seems incapable of delivering any statement without a nasty sideswipe at Liberals, Dion doesn't miss any opportunity to slam the Conservatives. When asked last week about the big United Nations panel report on the science behind climate change, for instance, Dion talked mostly about why he'd be a better prime minister than the current occupant of the office.

"Canada will be a leader to face this challenge with a convinced prime minister. We don't have one today, but if Canadians want to embrace my vision, we will have one tomorrow," Dion said.

Partly because these lines are being delivered in Dion's still-imperfect English, and partly because it doesn't really fit with the anti-establishment image he presented during the leadership race, there's a sense that this new Liberal leader has initially put himself at the mercy of the dreaded "handlers."

In Ottawa parlance, that means the professional backroom folks who design strategy and public relations around a cookie-cutter template; a checklist of well-worn tactics and tricks that are borrowed from the manuals rather than being designed with a view to the politician's particular strengths and weaknesses. A recent example? Recall former prime minister Paul Martin, senior citizen, businessman and finance minister, being presented as a celebrity rock star.

Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the politician – if Dion is suddenly talking like a political animal, he's decided it's in his best interests.

How is it all working out for him so far?

"Mixed," would be the diplomatic way to put it. By the end of this week, two new polls found the Conservatives' fortunes climbing, largely at the Liberals' expense. Even worse news for Dion, those same two polls attributed the Liberal fall to the Conservatives' anti-Dion ads on TV. These are the grainy spots that appeared during the Super Bowl broadcast and are still running now, showing Dion on the defensive at a Liberal leadership debate. "St├ęphane Dion is not a leader," the ads proclaim.

SES Research, in a poll released yesterday, found the Tories and Liberals in a dead heat nationally, with 33 per cent each, but Dion's Liberals had fallen six points in Ontario in the past 90 days.

"The Ontario numbers indicate that the Conservative ads are potentially driving voters from the Liberals to the NDP and Greens," SES president Nik Nanos said in a news release yesterday.

Leger Marketing offered the same gloomy analysis for the Liberals. Leger's numbers showed a bigger gap between the Tories and Liberals, at 38 and 31 points respectively.

"Mr. Dion suffers from a lack of awareness outside Quebec. Since Canadians do not know him well right now, the door is left open for someone else to fill this lack of knowledge. These numbers show that the negative ads may have done that with a portion of the electorate," Leger vice-president Christian Bourque said.

To add to Dion's troubles, some pundits and commentators have started to pick up on the "not-a-leader" theme and are writing columns that read a little bit like that old tale about the emperor and his new clothes. Tolerance appears to be fading for Dion's shaky English.

"Dion not the man he seemed," was a headline in the Ottawa Sun yesterday. Last weekend, Ottawa Citizen columnist Randall Denley savaged Dion with such furor that his words were lifted verbatim and plastered across the top of the "Blogging Tories" web page – a popular Internet site for Conservative-leaning commentary. The Denley column was the subject of much buzz in political conversations in Ottawa this week.

And then, because Liberals are not the kind to suffer in discreet, loyal silence, we're starting to hear hints of low-level grumbling in the ranks. Canadian Press reported this week that Dion's single-minded focus on the environment is being seen as a strategic error by some worried caucus members.

"It can't be just climate change," one MP told Canadian Press later, summing up the mood of caucus.

"There's a lot of talk about how we can't be one-dimensional."

Dion did in fact change the channel, veering off the topic of the environment to talk about federal-provincial relations and foreign affairs in his questions to Harper later in the week.

But then there was another CP report and more low-level grumbling – this time about Dion considering the radical idea of banning men from running in nomination contests in certain ridings, to help make sure that one-third of the Liberal candidates in the next election are women. Beyond the obvious controversy this idea generates, it threatens to expose Dion as an authoritarian – not exactly in keeping with all the talk of him being more collegial and collaborative than Harper.

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Gerard Kennedy was instrumental in making Dion leader when he threw his own leadership team to the cause in the final ballots at that riveting Montreal convention in December. Now, the former Ontario education minister is in charge of election readiness and announced his own plans this week to run in the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park.

Kennedy says it would be perilous to mess with Dion's optimistic and uncynical image.

"Mr. Dion is seen as a fundamentally positive individual and that's what's got a bunch of non-political people quite hopeful about where Canada might go," Kennedy said this week. "They think he's got the gumption and the self-composition to actually make decisions in the public interest without worrying whether it's going to do him any short-term political good."

Kennedy says, and Dion advisers also agree, that in some ways, the new Liberal leader has been provoked into the sharper, attack mode by the Tory ads. Kennedy also says that Dion, personally, gets riled at the Tories' constant smearing of the Liberal record.

Nevertheless, Kennedy believes that Liberals' best chances rest on them taking the high road and leaving the low road to the Conservatives.

"Mr. Dion, like myself, does not believe we're going to get elected on the deficits of Stephen Harper. We're going to get elected based on a positive, clear, clear agenda on what we have to offer," Kennedy said. "If the election and the run-up aren't about something fundamental, that only plays to Mr. Harper's advantage."

And so, with reviews decidedly mixed on Dion's performance so far, it seems likely that Liberals are going to be revisiting the strategy to date. Dion, some long-time observers say, has a bit of a habit of faltering at first in his new jobs and then surpassing expectations. It's usually a mistake for opponents to count him out.

That's what people said about Harper, too. These two leaders, academics turned politicians, are clearly studying up on their leadership styles at the moment to figure out what will work best for them in the next election. Neither one of them has got it right just yet.

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