In choosing Stéphane Dion, the Liberals chose enviro policy over the naked pursuit of power. Is nothing sacred?

MONTREAL – On Friday, Dec. 1, fewer than 24 hours before he will become the 11th leader in Liberal Party History, Stéphane Dion is onstage looking confused. The music from the speaker system has swelled and, on large screens on either side of stage, we can see that his lips are moving, but his voice is not audible to the crowd. Less than an hour ago, the same thing happened to Ken Dryden, who also ran over the allotted time for his speech and had the mic cut on him. Two full pages of Dion’s prepared speech – in which he planned to touch on national unity, childcare, multiculturalism and his own leadership skills – will go undelivered.

As it is, I have written in my notebook: “Problems: very poor English pronunciation. Doesn’t look like a prime minister. Campaigning for environment minister?”

Dion cocks his head and wanders slowly away from the podium, arranging his lips into an awkward smile. The throng of supporters waving flags and carrying Dion placards raises a cheer, trying to put a happy face on a disappointing performance.

Outside the Palais des Congrès, a Dionista shares a theory over a smoke: “It’s a conspiracy. Iggy’s behind this. It’s bullshit.”

What a difference a day makes.

Here’s the shorthand profile before voting begins: Michael Ignatieff’s supporters seem like the type who will give you a wedgie; Bob Rae’s might give you a lecture; Gerrard Kennedy’s might pass you a beer; Stéphane Dion’s seem likely to pass you a joint. You can see the natural synergy between the young and rowdy backers of Dion and Kennedy.

Everyone here is talking strategy and, going into the convention, there are four candidates that supporters will variously tell you are going to win:

Ignatieff needs to show big on the first ballot, achieving a shock-and-awe effect.

Rae needs Kennedy to stay in third place ahead of Dion long enough that Dion is eliminated. Kennedy, not surprisingly, also needs Kennedy to stay ahead of Dion on the first few ballots, and then hope that his presumed alliance with Dion can hold strong.

Dion needs to move out ahead of Kennedy to become the “anybody-but” candidate, then draw all or most of Kennedy’s support, then ride that momentum into the top job. (This is exactly what will happen.)

Ken Dryden still thinks he can win too. Dryden’s victory strategy involves having Guy Lafleur and Jean Bélliveau playing in front of him. Unfortunately, that strategy applies to a different sport. Dryden is the only one in the building who thinks he can win.

Predictably, throughout the convention, I heard criticism of each leading candidate from supporters of his rivals: Ignatieff supported the war in Iraq, he’s playing roulette with Quebec separatists, he hasn’t been in Canada in 30 years; Rae is an interloper in the party, his heart still belongs to the NDP, he can’t manage the country’s finances; Kennedy is too inexperienced, doesn’t understand the big issues of the country, needs to spend more time on the bench learning the game. Not once, however, did I hear anyone knock Dion on his policy or experience.

The rap on Dion was simply that he’s unelectable: “We can kiss all of our Quebec seats goodbye” on the one hand and “he’ll never be able to win a seat west of Manitoba” on the other. Everyone, it seems, thought Dion was a great thinker, a great policy guy, a loyal Liberal, a policy asset to the party. But no one seemed to believe he could lead the party to victory. To some extent, this is true even of his own supporters. “He has the best chance to beat Harper” is the whispered pitch of both Rae and Ignatieff supporters. Dion’s people never talk about electability. They talk about saving the planet.

This is not a small consideration when you are discussing any political party, never mind the Liberals. As influential Liberal blogger Bart Ramson (of http://www.calgarygrit.blogspot.com) has observed, “victory is every Liberal’s favourite policy.” The unshakable pursuit of power for its own sake has defined the Liberal party. At every turn for 40 years or more, the Liberal party has been willing to throw aside all other considerations to climb on whatever horse it thinks can win. This was never more evident than at the leadership convention of 2003 when the party shivved three-time winner Jean Chrétien and elevated Paul Martin to the leader’s chair on nothing but the belief that he could win 200 seats. That orgy of naked, arrogant ambition ended poorly. But in speeches and on the convention floor, winning is still an overwhelming theme. As one Ignatieff supporter sums it up, “We’re here for one reason: to beat the pants off Harper.”

By the pantsing-Harper measuring stick, Dion is the longest of shots, as decreed by the power brokers of the Liberal party. All of the influential big shots and backroom boys of both the Chrétien and Martin years have lined up behind either Rae or Ignatieff. No matter how inspiring and fun Kennedy and Dion seem, there’s a heavy perception in the air – extending as far as conspiracy theories about microphone control – that maybe the Old Boys will engineer a way to make sure their guys take it in the end. Moments before the third ballot results are announced, a rumour runs through the crowd that Iggy is throwing 300 votes to Rae in order to engineer Dion’s defeat.

But then something interesting happens: the delegates on the floor, the several thousand loyal Liberal organizers and riding-association pillars from across the country – especially the true believers who followed Kennedy into the convention – decide to support the policy guy who no one thinks can win. They don his green buttons and t-shirts and scarves, symbolically embracing his call that environmentalism should join social programs and fiscal prudence as a pillar of the Liberal party, and in so doing shrug off the traditional widest pillar, that of pursuing power at all costs.

Dion seems a little stunned on Saturday evening when he approaches the microphone to make his acceptance speech. He bites his lip and cocks his head and, in awkward English, asks if getting to speak without having the microphone shut off is one of the perks of leadership.

On the convention floor, the Ignatieff people are crying and trying hard to hide their bitterness and disappointment. But among the Kennedy and Dion and even among the Rae supporters, there is a giddy kind of electricity, a triumphalism tempered with a sense of disbelief. Onstage is a man who ran for the leadership with no power brokers in his corner, no money, poor English speaking skills, a bad reputation among Quebec nationalists and no reputation in English Canada. He campaigned on the premise that the environment trumps all other concerns, and he spread that message by grassroots network building, travelling from town to town talking to small groups, and having his supporters reach out for earnest discussions with others. His record as an effective minister, a loyal Liberal and a principled man of ideas overcame his virtual charisma vacuum.

It’s already been reported in the press that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives ought to be wary of underestimating Dion. But there’s another message from the convention, one that ought to perhaps worry the NDP as well: the other party of the left has developed a conscience. This being the Liberal party, the power guys will almost certainly find a way to screw it up. But for today, as Dion calls for “a just Canada, a prosperous Canada, a sustainable Canada” while dangerous-looking fireworks go off inside the hall and the green-and-red mass of delegates jump and scream and shout, it is hard to shake off the giddiness. For those already calling the next election in Stephen Harper’s favour, consider this: the Liberals decided to elect the guy who should win rather than the guys who seemed able to win. If that can happen, nothing in Canadian politics is certain anymore.

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 7, 2006. 

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