Monday, October 6, 2008

Politics: Liberal Horses

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the 30-September-2008 episode of the CBC Television satire show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes", comedian Geri Hall made fun of an apparent demographic focus by the Conservatives on single women by "chasing after" Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion. I doubt Harper was harmed or helped by the encounter; he looked modestly stiff (this is Stephen Harper, after all) and upon prodding did play along with the joke by speaking in a robotic voice. On the other hand, I suspect Dion might have been helped somewhat by the piece, in which he donned sunglasses and a leather jacket and stated "Hasta la vista, Stephen." While his earnestness certainly wasn't hidden, he seemed to be enjoying the whole thing--indeed, having fun with it--a lot more than Harper, counter to the professor stereotype with which he has been saddled. Once more, the thought went through my mind--why won't the Liberals rally behind this man?

Ever since the December 2006 Liberal Party convention at which he unexpectedly was elected party leader over favorites Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, Dion has had trouble unifying the party. Despite placing his rivals in prominent positions within the party, there have been persistent stories of Rae and Ignatieff supporters undermining his leadership. The Conservatives capitalized on his perceived weak position and his relative difficulty with the English language with an advertising campaign that has left the image of a shrugging, ineffective Dion burned in the public mind. On any call-in talk show talking about the Federal election, there will be at least one caller saying, "Dion just isn't a leader."

The image seems to stand in contrast to the Dion that has appeared publicly during the campaign. During both the French and English language debates, Dion made strong debating points, threw significant accusations at Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, and seemed little like his professorial image. In most polls, he "won" the French debate. His opinions tend to be quite forward-looking, yet are not devoid of immediate political concerns--comments on my previous post on electoral reform revealed that Dion has actually supported an intellectually superior system, but seems to be talking about a lesser reform for political reasons. In interviews across the country, he has demonstrated a deep grasp of issues, whether one agreed with his opinions or not--and presumably, almost all Liberals do agree.

Recently, I asked my barber to explain to why Dion had such trouble getting respect. "I'll tell you what's wrong with Dion," he said. "There were two stallions running for election, and a bunch of ponies. The stallions were so focused on each other, that they didn't notice the ponies getting together and electing a pony. Dion is that pony; he is not a stallion."

It would be one thing for the Liberals to abandon Dion if a clear successor "stallion" was waiting in the wings. Some may feel otherwise, but I don't see one. Rae, who had finished second in the original ballot in the 2006 convention, has the burden of his record as NDP Premier of Ontario in the 1990's. One of the first things I learned about upon moving to the province was "Rae Days," an austerity measure in which public employees were given ten unpaid days off per year. To this day, Rae is ridiculed for that and other actions as premier. With a worst-case scenario in this election in which the Liberals may have few seats outside of Ontario, having a party leader with fundamental issues growing a coalition in the party's remaining stronghold could conceivably be a near death-knell for the Federal party that many delegates would likely try to avoid.

Current Deputy Leader and leader on the first-round ballot in 2006, Michael Ignatieff may not have any such political baggage, but he may not even be re-elected to parliament. In his Etobicoke—Lakeshore riding, just across the Humber River from my residence, Conservative Patrick Boyer is making an issue of the fact that Ignatieff lives in Yorkville instead of the riding and by my observation is winning the lawn sign game.

Fourth-place finisher Gerard Kennedy, currently running as the Liberal candidate in my own riding of Parkdale-High Park, is far from guaranteed to win election himself as he has taken on popular NDP incumbent Peggy Nash. Even if he does pull out a victory, he faces the same Rae and Ignatieff forces that have undermined Dion, as he is ideologically similar to Dion, with only the added advantages of native English speaking and a lack of political baggage in Quebec. Similarly, any other candidate will face the same Rae and Ignatieff forces that have so weakened Dion.

So, in my opinion, there is no clear "stallion" out there to take over. And, in the absence of such a figure, I don't understand why any Liberal would want Dion to falter. Then again, I'm not a Liberal, and maybe that's why I don't understand.

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