Friday, March 30, 2007

limp chorus of "Dion, Dion, Dion."

'So not ready' Ivison: Despite Dion's bluster, election prospects bleak for reeling Liberals
John Ivison, National Post March 29, 2007

"We're ready ... we're ready ... we're ready," shouted St├ęphane Dion at a Liberal pep rally yesterday, as members of his caucus gave a limp chorus of "Dion, Dion, Dion."

This was curious, since a senior Liberal had just confided: "We’re so not ready."

Mr. Dion's concluding call to arms — "We don't want an election, but if there is an election, we're going to win" — produced guffaws of disbelief, and even expressions of sympathy, from journalists who have formed a consensus that the Liberal leader is doomed.

The prospects would certainly be bleak if the Liberals were forced to fight a spring election. The latest polls put them as much as 17 points behind the Tories. They have nominated only 56 of 308 candidates, with a similar number pending in the next few weeks. This still leaves nearly 200 seats without candidates on the eve of a possible election, though the party claims it will have candidates in place when it needs them.

The platform is being written on the hoof and diluted to appease the various factions in the party. They are being outgunned on the fundraising front by at least 2:1. And, worst of all, they have a leader whose accent reminds English Canadians of the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who told his adversaries to "go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person."

Mr. Dion is not yet taken seriously in many parts of Canada — largely because parts of his platform, such as the environmental plan, are also Pythonesque.

But his speech yesterday gave hints why the current state of affairs might not always be so — and why the Prime Minister might be wise to call an election before Mr. Dion joins the pantheon of politicians such as Jean Chr├ętien, Mike Harris, Mario Dumont and even one Stephen Joseph Harper who confounded the collective wisdom after being written off by the media.

The speech gave a flavour of what we can expect in a general election campaign: A Dion government would build a "richer, fairer, greener" Canada that would see more cash spent on education and broad-based tax cuts.

It also took Mr. Harper to task for reducing the role of the federal government. "He must explain which powers and which responsibilities he wants to take away from federal government and justify them in terms of public interest and not in terms of electoral manipulation," he said in
clear English.

As Mr. Harper is confronted with the Charest-Dumont tag team in Quebec — neither of whom is likely to agree with Jim Flaherty's view that his budget is "the end of the bickering" — these are questions that some Conservatives will also be asking themselves.

Mr. Dion's speech will be reassuring for those Trudeau Liberals who want to see the party occupy traditional territory: left of centre on social issues; right of centre on taxation and the economy; all the while advocating a strong federal government.

"I thought it was a barn-burner. Dion surprised because he exceeded the media's expectations," said Senator Jerry Grafstein, who was a senior advisor to Pierre Trudeau. "He dissected the budget, had some one-line zingers and positioned the party where it should be."

Mr. Dion understands that Canadians don't need to love him, they just have to like him better than the other guy. To this end he is building a narrative that paints Mr. Harper as a churlish, short-sighted ideologue who will only look out for his fellow travellers.

"I will fight this election whenever it comes and I will fight hard. Canadians will know who I am and what I stand for and they will know what Mr. Harper's regime will do to this country — the smallness of ideology, the meanness of spirit, the inability to understand the enormity of Canada's
future," he said.

For all the optimistic talk of election readiness, a much more telling indicator of preparedness was a news release from Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale calling on the Conservatives to give royal assent to their own bill on fixed election dates — thus reducing the likelihood of the Prime Minister
engineering his own demise. The release quoted Mr. Harper as saying that fixed dates "prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage."

If Mr. Harper really wants a majority, he will ignore any such qualms and force an election as soon as the polls stabilize around the 40% mark. The Liberal party has the regenerative powers of a flatworm. A year from now and it's entirely possible that Mr. Dion will have been able to transform
himself from zero to hero. Doubters should look to the recent reinvention of Mario Dumont.