”œStephen, if you’re listening, we are counting the days until the next election” " with those words spoken on that fateful evening of December 2, 2006, Stéphane Dion closed his party’s convention and claimed the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.
The results on the final ballot were as decisive as they were surprising. With 54.7 percent of the vote on the final ballot, Stéphane Dion’s victory over runner-up Michael Ignatieff left no room for doubt as to who had carried the day. On the other hand, very few Liberals had gone into that convention with that outcome in mind. He received the support of only 17.8 percent of delegates on the first bal- lot, so a little over two-thirds of the votes that gave Dion his victory were earned on the floor of the convention in between ballots. The delegates might well in the end have decided on Dion, but they made the decision late in the game and, to avoid a post-convention hangover, would need to be reassured that they made the right call.
Nevertheless, almost a year after the Martin govern- ment’s defeat at the hands of the Harper Tories, such fight- ing words seemed to bring comfort and purpose to party delegates, many of whom still seemed genuinely stunned at the outcome of that election. Distracted as they had been by an RCMP investigation into income trust leaks and the residual effect of the sponsorship scandal, voters had made their decision without regard for the achieve- ments of successive Liberal governments. Given half a chance, many Liberals believed, voters would take back the support they had grudgingly lent to the Conservatives and return them to power.
Nearly 18 months into Stéphane Dion’s leadership, however, the Liberals seem as far away from 24 Sussex as they ever have been. After a brief but noticeable bounce in the polls immediately following the convention, Dion has since stumbled from skirmish to skirmish, outmanoeu- vred in the Commons and outflanked on the right and the left in the country. Even as the RCMP executes search war- rants on Conservative Party headquarters, the Canadian economy faces the most significant challenges since 1993 and the Harper government tackles contentious issues in Parliament, there is little the Liberals can point to as evi- dence that they have done their homework and learned their lessons from 2006.
To this day, they are running the same campaign against Harper as they did in 2006 (and 2004, for that matter) in the hope that, this time, the same strategy and the same platform will yield a different result.
There is evidence that some Liberals are looking for change. While public opinion polls continue to show that support for the Liberals and Tories has remained relatively stable since the last election, the numbers seem to speak to the resilience of the Liberal brand much more than the effective- ness of its current leader.
Clearly, Liberals know that. There is no doubt that an increasing number of MPs, operatives and local members are growing impatient with their leader’s strategy of sustaining the Harper government until more favourable polls show them they can win. Daily newspapers are riddled with quotes from Liberal sources " some of them named, others not " questioning the impact of their sup- port for key government legislation on their electoral prospects. And while internal party opinion oscillates between the hawks and the doves from week to week (at time of writing, the hawks seem to be gaining the upper hand, but who knows what will happen next week), the arguments put forward by both sides betray the fact that the Liberal Party has not yet come to terms with the results of the last election and is therefore not ready to fight the next one.
When he stepped onto the stage to claim his victory, Stéphane Dion revealed a clear choice in favour of the quick play over the long game. In his first address to party members and Canadians as a national leader, he chose to put the imminent defeat of the Harper government at the centre of his strategy.
Rather than developing a fresh policy platform and renewing its ties with Canadians, the Liberal Party would rush voters to the polls at the first opportunity. Had an election been triggered sometime in the spring of 2007, Dion’s strategy might well have proven a winning one. The discipline of an imminent campaign might well have rallied a party around a leader who ran as an out- sider and was, at best, the second choice of four out of five delegates.
Former rivals would have been compelled to work together, and in such short timelines, the leader could have put his personal stamp on the party platform.
But when applied to the longer term, that short play doesn’t get you very far down the field. Having declared your intention to trigger an election, presumably on the grounds that an early writ is in the best interest of citi- zens, it becomes more difficult with each passing vote of confidence to defend your decision not to pull the pin. And internally, the party machin- ery must forgo any long-term planning, because every day might be the day.
More puzzling still is the insis- tence on the part of Dion’s entourage on reinforcing the notion that they will decide to cause an election only when they can win one. With one short statement, the opposition leader’s office repeatedly reminds vot- ers that it cannot in the current cir- cumstances win an election, and that its primary consideration will be the interest of the Liberal Party over the concerns of Canadians. Moreover, as former PMO director of communica- tions Scott Reid recently argued in the Toronto Star, setting out on a strategy of objecting fundamentally to government initiatives when one knows full well that actions will not support the rhetoric is ultimately self-defeating: it embarrasses caucus members, it dispir- its party activists, and it reduces the points of differentiation from the party in government.
With such a high price to pay for the strategy, the rationale for it would really have had to be ironclad. Ironically, Stéphane Dion might well have been the one candidate in the leader- ship race (certainly among the top-tier candidates) best positioned to declare a moratorium on election speculation, launch a grass- roots policy process and restructure the party. Having been sent to the penalty box by voters, Dion could have turned that imposed time- out into a strategic advantage. ”œVoters have spoken,” he might have declared to the assembled delegates that December evening, ”œand we have heard them. On behalf of Canadians, we will keep a watchful eye on the Harper gov- ernment, but we will take the time to renew ourselves and not rush headlong into a premature election.”
Such a strategy would have rein- forced the notion in the eyes of Canadians that Stéphane Dion’s victo- ry was a break from the recent Liberal past. It would have allowed the oppo- sition Liberals to take the time to define in precise terms how they are different from the Harper Tories. And, internally, it would have given Dion an opportunity to connect with the vast majority of the party that did not support him on the first ballot by engaging members directly " and as their leader " in renewing the party.
Instead, the Liberal leader has reduced his role in this parliament, and perhaps his entire leadership, to that one decision: Is today the day? Regardless of the theme of his speech, the debate in Parliament, or the news of the day, that seems to be the first and the last ques- tion journalists are interested in asking him these days. By insisting so vehe- mently that only he has the power to decide when this Parliament will be dis- solved, Dion has relegated his views on the slumping economy, our mission in Afghanistan and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the sidelines.
More importantly, by voting with the government on all of these impor- tant issues, he has limited his ability to strike a meaningful contrast with the Conservatives in a future cam- paign. For political observers and ana- lysts, the significant result is a weakened Liberal hand. If politics is a horse race, the Liberal jockey has sad- dled his team with a record in Parliament so deeply marked by inde- cision and contradictions that win- ning the race may be impossible without a significant stumble by another racer. Some senior Liberals quietly admit that the time for an election might well be near, if only to get past it, dump the leader and start again. The real contest, they say, will come during the election after next.
For citizens, the consequences are more troubling. Voter turn out data for recent federal elections clearly show a correlation between turnout and meaningful electoral choice. When Canada’s two major parties offer differ- ent and dynamic plans for govern- ment, citizens exercise their franchise in greater numbers. To wit, turnout in the 2004 and 2006 general elections reversed the trend of gradual decline that had set in since 1993.
In contrast, when the policy dif- ference between parties is difficult to explain or the outcome largely a fore- gone conclusion, voters often choose to make it on time to their child’s soc- cer practice, review some homework or do a grocery run rather than head to the polls " a trend that usually favours the incumbent.
The Dion Liberals might yet find a way to distance themselves from their record in Parliament, explain to busy voters why they voted for the government until they voted against it and give the Conservatives a com- petitive election. But having chosen not to engage in a full and public pol- icy process while in opposition, they gave up the most effective instrument at their disposal to define what they would do for Canadians if they were called upon to form a government.
Thus, their results come voting day will in large part be determined by the performance and policies of others " for the professorial Dion, an ironic twist of fate indeed.