Sadly, the Liberals know not what they do
Based on the record, Stéphane Dion’s victory at the Liberal convention is not surprising. But it is troubling. And yes, I predicted it on the radio beforehand; any fool can be wise after the fact. First, the federal Liberals have not won an electoral majority with an anglophone leader since 1945: before steel-belted radials, TVs in homes, or the birth of any of the eight convention leadership contenders. Liberals’ blithe selfimage as the Natural Governing Party may obscure their vision of this awkward reality. But they must feel it in their guts. And Mr. Dion was the only francophone.
Second, the party leadership alternates between francophone winners and anglophone chumps. Yes, Paul Martin represented a Montreal riding and spoke very good French. But he was as anglo as white socks on a first date. Again, advantage, Mr. Dion.
Third, the federal Liberal party hasn’t picked a leader without federal cabinet experience since Edward Blake in 1880, their only leader who never reached 24 Sussex. Only Mr. Dion among the four front- runners had been a federal minister.
Fourth, Mr. Dion was the only real insider among the frontrunners in a party that values loyalty. Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff entered trailing parachutes. Former provincial Liberal Gerard Kennedy might one day earn insider status, including federal cabinet experience. But not yet.
So much for his victory. Now the implications. Mr. Dion was both the logical choice for the Liberals and a problematic one, and his party and our country are in more trouble as a result than you’ve probably read in newspapers.
I know, I know. He’s good at being underestimated, a political skill itself frequently underestimated. And I don’t believe the clichés about him being disliked in Quebec; the Québécois tribe prefers its own to anglos any day. Mr. Dion’s problem is the exact opposite. He’s liable to strike Westerners and rural Ontarians as embodying all that’s wrong with this country.
Consider his rocky start regarding his dual French citizenship. It wouldn’t be a big deal if he’d just said: My Paris- born maman got it for me, I never voted there or held a passport, and now that I’m running for prime minister I’m renouncing it because I love Canada so darn much. Instead ( life lesson: It’s usually not the mistake that hurts you, it’s the denial) he haughtily rejected the notion that a man can’t aspire to lead one country while having a membership card in a more sophisticated one in his back pocket in case the rubes don’t perceive his qualities. In the non- post- modern parts of the country, loyalty is not a comical concept. And Mr. Dion’s narrow cosmopolitanism is a potentially huge cultural problem there.
Especially given his determination to implement Kyoto. I strongly advise him to keep in his office one of those late-Trudeau- era bumper stickers: “ Let the Eastern [ bad word] freeze in the dark.” Alberta is bigger, wealthier, more confident and more fed up than it’s ever been, and anything resembling a second National Energy Program, if it tips the provincial economy into recession, could tear the country apart.
I don’t mean figuratively. Stéphane Dion was exactly the right man to humble Quebec separatists with his elegant Cartesian letters, and exactly the wrong man to grasp that if the West ever gets serious about separation, they’ll print the ballots, vote and go while Joe Clark is still telling CBC it’s nothing to get excited about. And if you wanted a man whose attitudes as well as policies could make them get serious, central casting would send Dr. Stéphane Dion with his PhD from the Institut d’études politiques in Paris and his fractured English.
Sure, Jean Chrétien’s English was awful. But so was his French. And his “ little- guy” image made his second language problem inoffensive. Whereas Mr. Dion is an ostentatiously brilliant intellectual who easily could have acquired flawless English living in Montreal. He just didn’t bother. Such a vulgar tongue. Such vulgar people. In isolation it might not matter much. But consider Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant’s point that every 2006 Liberal leadership candidate supported the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, and not one came from a province whose farmers are subject to it. It’s less a policy than an attitude, and a dangerous one.
Dead in the West since 1958, without a majority of Quebec seats since 1980, basically confined to three big cities, it now takes all the Liberals’ strength just to hold their existing support, leaving neither time nor energy for genuine renewal. Yet one more win the old way could fracture the country.
Does Mr. Dion see any of this? In the mirror? Tradition says no, and makes his selection both unsurprising and highly problematic.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]