Thursday, March 8, 2007

i don't think Dion's generalities will cut it; people want to hear something concrete - now and not later

In-fighting leaves Liberal leader on shaky leg
CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen March 08, 2007

OTTAWA - When Stephane Dion steps up to the podium today to address the Canadian Club, the only ones listening with an even more critical ear than the Tories in the crowd will be the Liberals.

But, however high the expectations or impatient the audience, there's likely to be more meat on their luncheon plates than in the Liberal leader's remarks.

After a particularly bitter round of backroom wrangling, he has been convinced by one ascendant faction to hold off on delivering a comprehensive economic platform until an election campaign formally begins.

And that means -despite the growing internal and external pressure on Dion to provide a detailed plan -he intends to stick to broad-brush, big-picture generalities. Again.

"It's been a complete nightmare behind the scenes, complete with screaming policy debates and chaotic lack of organization," says one veteran adviser to the Liberal party. "Loyalists are already warning Stephane to watch his back."

Those warnings may resonate all the more now that one of his former rivals for the leadership, Bob Rae, has officially announced he will seek the nomination in Toronto Centre, the riding from which Liberal MP Bill Graham is retiring.

Perhaps still unaccustomed to a life in Opposition, where it's not up to you to either set or pace the policy agenda, Dion intends to borrow a page from his own environmental play book, taking a resolutely long-term approach. The plan is for him to deliver a lecture on the need to better ensure Canada's competitiveness in the face of growing challenges from emerging economies like India and China.

He will take the approach that, as with the environment, economic strategies must now be forged in a global context rather than a predominantly domestic one.

Dion will also likely take the Tories to task for running Canada's economy with cynical political expediency rather than the appropriate spirit of stewardship. And as part of that argument, he'll take them to task for cutting the GST -a consumption tax -and effectively increasing income taxes instead.

Looking forward to the upcoming budget and the $13 billion surplus the Liberals claim they bequeathed the Tories, Dion will be calling for a reverse of last year's income tax hike as well as restoration of cuts announced last year to funding for women's groups, literacy programs and museums.

Another point Dion plans to push is the Harper government's handling of the income trust issue. His position is that an efficient, highlycompetitive energy industry with re-patriated Canadian ownership was built on the trust structure. And it's now vulnerable to foreign takeovers at depressed prices, destroying wealth and competitiveness.

While the environment is an inherently long-term issue that has resonated with Canadians far more than the Conservative government initially calculated, when it comes to business and finance, short-term horizons tend to dominate the scenery: in business as on Bay Street, the focus is on quarterly performance. Pondering is rarely rewarded.

Reports of ferocious in-fighting behind the scenes makes it all the more noteworthy that Rae is now stepping forward in Toronto Centre as he pledged to do following the convention. (He has his own well-documented baggage with another former leadership candidate, Michael Ignatieff, who now serves as Dion's deputy.)

If he shifts Liberal policy further to the left of centre, Dion could compromise Rae's chances in a riding that has three distinct segments: the affluent Rosedale neighborhood, the subsidized housing of St. Jamestown and Toronto's gay village.

In his run for the nomination, Rae is up against activist lesbian lawyerMeredith Cartwright, who has strong credibility with both the gay and monied constituents -a rare combination that Graham refined during his long tenure there.

Still, Rae's political experience will be all the more valuable if reports of internal Liberal rifts are even close to being accurate.

According to party insiders, the logistical planning for a possible spring election -including the rental of planes, buses, office space and other basics -is lagging because it's in the hands of inexperienced Dion stalwarts.

That means that even when the time comes to get out and deliver that long-awaited economic platform, the campaign bus may still be in the parking lot.