Monday, December 04, 2006

Stéphane vs. Stephen

So it will be the battle of the Steves in 2007, eh? That was quite the dramatic convention, and a rather media-savvy one at that. I have a few initial post convention thoughts, and some preliminary comments to make about Stéphane Dion's potential.

First, the convention: I thought that this was a pretty slickly engineered convention for the television viewer, even if the final ballot announcement was clearly delayed to be on at 6 PM Eastern. I was extremely pleased that several candidates didn't decide to hold on to the bitter end: Volpe, Brison and Kennedy. By dropping off the ballot when they did, they both created drama, and helped the party by keeping the convention to a manageable and TV-viewer friendly length. If they had stuck it out, we would have been into the wee hours of the morning on Sunday before the name of the new leader was announced.

There were also some rather nice optics in terms of healing old fissures in the party. Both Martin and Chrétien swallowed their pride in their speeches and acknowledged both the existence and the accomplishments of the other. It even looked like Martin was crying during Chrétien's speech. The person who positioned people on the stage behind Dion was also extremely clever - there were several shots where you clearly had three heads in the frame - Chrétien, Dion and Martin. That visually, at least, speaks to a much more united party. We'll see if that carries through into the next few months, and if Rae and Ignatieff do, as reported, run in the next election.

Now, my impressions of Dion. I have long had a real soft spot for Dion - his name actually appears in the first sentence of my book, in his capacity of Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. I have a lot of respect for academics who leave the more comfortable, and private, realm of academia to enter public life. I have even more respect for Dion, who did this at Chrétien's request to speak some truth amidst the pack of separatist falsehoods and myths in the mid-1990s, at great risk to his own popularity. Chantal Hébert, for whom I normally have great respect, seems to think that Dion's name is mud in Quebec because of this. She, and others, seem to think that Dion is dead in the water in Quebec, and that either Rae or Ignatieff would have been a much easier sale. Perhaps, perhaps not. Personally, I think that the Liberals were kidding themselves about what would have happened to their support in Ontario under Rae (and if we're talking electoral math, the 100+ seats in Ontario matter more than the 75 in Quebec). I also think that Ignatieff, while more popular among the neo-nationalist and separatist voters than Dion, would have been their "second choice" to the Bloc, and made few initial gains.

I think that Dion has good mid-to long-term growth potential in Quebec. He may not be loved, but I think that he at least has grudging respect from many voters. And as I pointed out to several friends over the weekend, even Jean Chrétien, the man who recruited Dion, managed to win half the seats in that province in the 2000 election. I believe that Dion will be able to match this - perhaps not in the next election if it is held within a few months, but certainly long term. I also think that Harper's capacity to shoot himself in the foot on key Quebec issues such as foreign policy, same-sex marriage and the environment will doom him there, and send more voters back into the Liberal fold.

What about Dion's sale-ability in the rest of the country. Several commentators seem to think that he is an unknown, and that this will be problematic. Well, we aren't talking about re-running the 2006 election campaign, for starters. One thing that has changed is that Stephen Harper is now better known, and I don't think for the better. Harper now has a record that he must defend to voters, rather than simply being able to run on promises of change, and that will make his task more difficult. Dion's "national unity" credentials will play particularly well in Ontario, which this issue does play a significant role in federal elections. The challenge for Dion will be to make sure that he runs a strong team - preferably of high profile candidates - especially in Western Canada. Gerard Kennedy might be key to raising his profile out west, and to drum up some good team members. This should not be a campaign run solely on leadership alone, much as some may personally like Dion.

What about the "English" question. On this one, I call bullshit. Those who have criticized Dion's English over the course of the campaign are mostly expressing sour grapes because the quality of French of their preferred candidates was so poor. Yes, Dion has an accent, and occasionally uses gallicisms. But his English is at least as strong as Chrétien's was, and Jean had decades to improve his. I suspect that it won't take long to iron out the few wrinkles in Dion's colloquial expressions in English. As someone who studies language policy, I will also make the observation that anglophones are far more willing to accept and forgive the occasional slip-up in spoken English, and are much more accustomed to hearing their language spoken with an accent than is the case for francophones. The English language is far less tied into the politics of identity for anglo-Canadians, and plays a much smaller role at the ballot box. But, and this is more to the point, if Dion were a Franco-Ontarian or an Acadian, nobody would be raising this issue. The fact that he is yet another leader from Quebec is a different question, and I'm not sure how that issue will play out. But I will say that I think that there is some subtle Quebec-bashing going on here, and it is being masked with questions over language competency.

I am not necessarilly confident that Dion will lead the Liberals to a majority government in 2007. But I do think that if he plays his cards right, he might be leader of a minority government, and at a bare minimum in a good position for the election after next. I wish him all the best in his task of rebuilding and revamping his party for the decades to come.

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At 10:44 am, Blogger FurGaia said...

I think that Ignatieff's role will have a fairly important impact on the success or failure of Dion. Whether he can subsume his own ambition and toe the line, so to speak, in a Dion-defined party is hard to know at this point. Dion and Ignatieff differ on fundamental questions in two of the most important sectors of Canadian politics: foreign policy and Canadian unity, with Ignatieff being much more closer to Harper on those two. One can bet that Harper will be using those differences to create division in the Liberal Party. Also it will be interesting to see whether the Liberal "establishment" follows Dion wholeheartedly or simply "lie low" and wait for him to fail whence Ignatieff's star could rise.

Perhaps it will be the measure of both Dion and Ignatieff to see how both of them ride the ideological rifts between them and lead the Liberal Party to victory at the next election (or fail to do so).

At 12:23 pm, Blogger RP. said...

Kiss me, Steph.


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