There were over 900 media registered at the Liberal Party convention in Montreal last December. The mass of media in a single location was larger than anything in recent memory, certainly more impressive than I had ever witnessed. Through the good graces of a newspa- per editor as well as of CPAC, which invited me onto its main panel, I was able to be one of the media masses. Moonlighting from my day job at McGill University, the experience proved to be rich in insights for a political scien- tist and an observer of the media. From their raised perches at the back of the convention hall, the broadcast media had a bird’s eye view of the movement in the room and of the action on the stage. The print media, meanwhile, were able to move back and forth from the writing hall ”” with rows and rows of desks and laptops ”” to the floor of the conven- tion where they trolled for information, black notebooks in hand. Instead of the smoke-filled rooms of the past, the air was filled with BlackBerries buzzing and mobile phones beeping incessantly. As political history unfolded in real time, I made a few observations about the Liberal leadership race, one that few would have thought necessary two years ago, and fewer still could have predicted a year ago.
Insights from the poli sci crowd: I met with several fel- low political scientists at the Liberal convention in Montreal. Neither political junkies nor political groupies, my colleagues provided a welcome counterweight to the horse-race obsession that pervaded the army of media scribes. The Liberal convention in Montreal ended up defy- ing many of the ”œconventions” associated with party lead- ership contests in Canada. The race was wide open, for starters, no one could call the winner in advance, and the apparent front-runner failed to win the day. But as political scientists will tell you, the real difference was that the expe- rienced Liberal caucus member ended up ahead of the out- siders in the race.
As John Courtney has argued, leadership conventions in Canada have historically represented a struggle between rec- ognizing proven political prowess and electoral potential, and the lure of the next best hope in the form of a white knight outsider. And it must be remembered that party lead- ership conventions are not general elections. They are ven- ues that attract party activists and true believers. So it should not have been that much of a surprise to see the party faith- ful turn their backs in the final instance against the carpet- bagger intrusions of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Instead, despite the establishment muscle, most of the rank and file chose the party man, Stéphane Dion, who was perceived to have a fresh message and vision for the party, thus logically bringing together both experience and renewal.
Despite the pre-convention poll indications that Ignatieff might be a stronger opponent to Stephen Harper, or that Rae might enjoy broader sup- port with the Canadian public, the Liberal delegates were more willing to offer the crown to the politician who had fought ”” and won ”” past elec- toral battles alongside his mentor Jean Chrétien. The sight of Eddie Goldenberg wrapped in a green Dion neckerchief seconds after Rae withdrew confirmed for all to see where the Chrétien soul of the party was going.
There was a palpable sense on the convention floor of the importance of the party’s iden- tity in this leadership contest. Wading through the conven- tion floor or eavesdropping in the voting line, one could feel the unease among some Liberal delegates about the NDP past of Bob Rae and the divisive decla- rations of Michael Ignatieff. Gerard Kennedy’s unremitting attack on the federal Liberals in his speech to the delegates probably didn’t endear him to many people outside his circle, either. The psychic pull of a deeply devoted Liberal ”œbeliev- er” like Dion was of immeasur- able importance to party members looking for a way to recapture their sense of purpose ”” and power.
Words from the wise: On speech night, I bumped into an influential media personality. He seemed to be spending a lot of time with the Kennedy camp, which in hindsight was probably the best place to be to chart the course of the convention (and to win the media pool predic- tions). Did Kennedy have a chance? ”œWho knows,” he remarked, ”œbut each and every one of these con- tenders think that they can make it.” This reminded me that a few weeks earlier, Scott Brison and I had chatted on the train, and he repeated his mantra about being in the race to win. ”œWhat kind of a masochist wouldIbetoruninthisraceifIdid- n’t think I could win?”
It may be hard to believe, delu- sional almost, like the wannabes on those Idol programs! But that is how you survive in politics, by keeping your eye on the prize and out for the main chance. Gerard Kennedy believed he had a chance, but knew that he had to hedge his bets. Most important of all, he ”” and Dion ”” had a plan. In the fateful minutes as the clock ran out before the third bal- lot, Frank McKenna, sitting in at the CPAC anchor desk, made the observa- tion that Kennedy had no choice but toact””andfast””ifhewantedto retain any measure of influence in the race and the party. With 30 seconds to spare, he pulled his name off the ballot and went to Dion.
In the end, it was the hubris of the two front-runners, the belief in their ability to pull it off and to rely on rough and ready instincts rather than a game plan, that derailed their ride to the top. On the convention floor, Ignatieff and his army of dele- gates sat in splendid isolation, buoyed by their initial first-place status and confident in their man’s ability to pull it off. Rae, meanwhile, sought safety in numbers by attracting one candidate after another as they dropped out of the race. From the media perch in the back of the convention hall, the optics couldn’t have been clearer: Bob was the guy with all the friends and Michael the guy who did- n’t seem to have many. At the end of the day, though, Dion and Kennedy remembered what’s important about friend- ship: it’s not about how many friends you have, but what your really good friends can deliver for you.
Cherchez la femme: The first thing I observed on arriving at the Palais des Congré€s de Montréal was Martha Hall Findlay’s bus, parked outside one of the entrances. It seemed forlorn, the perfect illustration of how little profile a woman could have in this leadership race. Sylvia Bashevkin has famously noted that, when it comes to women in Canadian party poli- tics, the higher you go, the fewer you find. This Liberal leadership contest seemed to bear that out, as the lone female trailed the pack. During the first days of the con- vention, while loud groups of support- ers surrounded the other candidates whenever they walked though the congress centre, Hall Findlay remained conspicuously alone, interviewed by a few straggling media. Most of the pack was stationed further on, waiting for a shot of ”” and at ”” the front-runners and the party brass. Belinda Stronach, who was covering the convention for one of the broadcast outlets, was more sought out by the media than was Martha Hall Findlay, one of the candi- dates in the race. Women were the accessories, not the main attraction, at this event.
But Martha Hall Findlay turned out to be the main event herself. On speech night, she stole the show. Beautifully turned out, smiling and sophisticated, she delivered the first and best of the night, showcasing her grasp of policy issues and a remarkable proficiency in French. She received the first and one of the very few ovations from all of the delegates in the room ”” something not even Ignatieff could muster at the end of the evening.
There were many other people impressed with Hall Findlay that night, and some so impressed that they cast their first ballot vote for her. With that little margin, Hall Findlay had the goods to become a king-maker in her own right. The only woman in the race became the symbol of power. As at the high-school prom, having the right date became the key to popu- lar success. Martha chose Stéphane, and the rest is history.
Les deux solitudes: The fun part of living in Montreal is the opportu- nity to be part of two linguistic and cultural communities. Unfortunately, the Liberal convention did not reflect much in the way of this cross-cultural dynamic; inside the convention area, little French was heard and even less was seen.
But the real story of the two soli- tudes at the Liberal leadership race was the difference in the way in which French- and English-language media covered the event ”” and the outcome. The antipathy that Stéphane Dion gen- erates among many francophone jour- nalists in Quebec is the stuff of legend. Francophone Quebecers, or at least those who cared enough to pay atten- tion to the Liberal leadership race, have not been overly keen toward this native son. But their opinion leaders have been even less so, bearing a grudge against the ”œunity” minister ever since he left the academy to join the Liberal Party. Serge Chapleau’s caricatures in La Presse representing Dion as a natty, haughty ”œrat” have become iconic political images in Quebec.
At the start of the Liberal leadership race, few French-language media saw the Dion candidacy as hav- ing legs. Even with an envi- ronmental platform that could appeal to pro-Kyoto public opinion in Quebec, Dion had enough political baggage for observers here to believe that his campaign would be a non-starter in his home province. As his campaign gathered momen- tum outside of Quebec, few were ready to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Whether still dubious or in denial, or maybe a bit of both, francophone journalists were in for a shock during the convention itself. Most of the influential Quebec leaders in the Liberal Party were in Ignatieff’s camp, and Rae’s failure to speak much French during his speech seemed to confirm a disconnect with the Quebec wing of the party. While the francoph- one media had prepared for any possi- ble outcome ”” that is what media do ”” they had not anticipated that Stéphane Dion’s political star would rise so high to become leader of the Liberal Party.
On the Saturday of the convention vote, I did double duty providing some colour commentary for CPAC and then joined a Radio-Canada radio show just before the third ballot. The French-language radio discussion was focused on who would be left standing between Ignatieff, Rae and Dion. I made the observation that Kennedy’s delegates were rumoured to be loyal, and that they would probably follow his lead to Dion. We quickly did the math. ”œDoes this mean Dion could win?” the radio host gasped. ”œNot only that,” another guest replied, ”œhe actu- ally risks winning.” After the risk became reality, a francophone print journalist mused that maybe Dion would be an interesting leader after all; that perhaps his environmental plat- form would move public policy in the right direction, that maybe he had mellowed in his view of federalism and in his vision of the nation in Quebec. But she didn’t sound very convinced, nor did the French-language newspa- pers across Quebec the next day.
SES pollster Nik Nanos prophesied that the nation debate would be the ballot issue at this convention. And sure enough, the divide between Dion and Ignatieff in the final vote illustrat- ed the enduring legacy of the two soli- tudes. At the end of the day, delegates rallied to Dion as the defender of the traditional Liberal notion of the Canadian nation, one in which Quebec could be put in its place.
From here to where? Almost immediately after the fourth bal- lot results were read and Stéphane Dion graciously recognized the defeated candidates, the convention hall emptied out as a room can only when the puck is about to drop across town at the Bell Centre. As the dele- gates left to continue the perennial rivalry between Toronto and Montreal on the ice, Dion began mak- ing the first rounds of media outlets, quick to begin branding himself with the Canadian press and public before his opponents could do so. He pro- jected the image of a calm, cool and collected leader, positioning himself against what he calls the ”œhard right” of Stephen Harper.
After the Liberal Party’s initial bounce in the polls after the conven- tion ”” referred to as the ”œ10-month infomercial” in media circles ”” it remains to be seen whether Dion can harness the energy and promise of this historic moment into a winning strat- egy for the next federal election. Whatever the political twists of the next few months, the timing of the next election and the platforms of the opponents, the real challenge for the Liberal Party is to deal with the divi- sions from within. The first delegates to leave the convention hall that Saturday night were not only Leafs and Canadiens fans; they were mainly Ignatieff’s troops, including a large raft of Quebec delegates, who seemed not only dejected but clearly dismayed at the result. Political contests are won on the ground, and that is where Dion’s efforts will have to begin as he reassembles the Liberal Party into a renewed political force.