The Dion disadvantage

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As celebrity MP Bob Rae takes his parliamentary seat, distinctly non-celebrity Liberal leader Stéphane Dion continues to weather vicious attacks originating in his home province, and amplified by the Toronto-Ottawa media.

Under popular scenario one, Dion must quit right now, to avoid the impending electoral disaster that awaits the Liberals. In scenario two, Dion must force an election immediately. Since the Liberals will lose it, the party can replace Dion subsequently by either Rae, or Michael Ignatieff.

In fact, the election outcome is uncertain. Prospects are poor for Liberal gains in Quebec, but they are unlikely to lose more than a seat or two. In Ontario, they look to pick up seats, with a helping hand from Conservative Finance Minister Flaherty, aka the unguided missile.

Rae and Ignatieff are still the two candidates rejected by the party just over two years ago, and their serious deficiencies are fully intact. Former Premier Rae stirs up hostility in Ontario, including among Liberals, and Ignatieff still has to atone for spending his adult life abroad, and referring to himself as an American.

As should be obvious, election prospects for the Liberals, as for the other opposition parties, turn largely on how Canadians view the Conservative government of Stephan Harper. Voters first make up their minds not to support the government, before deciding to pick an alternative.

The best prospects for the Conservatives are in Quebec where they are currently challenging the Bloc in popular vote outside Montreal. As well, the NDP are showing support in the 15 per cent range, even with the Liberals in Francophone Quebec.

While the Harper Conservatives have had (and will continue to have) serious support from the Canwest Global, and CTVglobemedia mainstream media monopolies, the party still has not achieved as much popular support in English speaking Canada as the Dion Liberals. Despite having all the advantages afforded a sitting prime minister, Harper has not broken through the resistance to his party, its policies, and his own tyrannical leadership style.

Stéphane Dion faces disadvantages. Just over forty years ago, Jean Marchand, not Pierre Trudeau, was the leading Liberal figure in Quebec, and was touted to be the Francophone replacement for Lester Pearson. Marchand declined to run, pointing out that the English Canadian media never gave someone with a French accent a fair break. With Jean Chrétien as the exception that proves the rule, the same is true today.

Interestingly, Stéphane Dion has recently made substantial improvements in his English, speaking more slowly, and distinctly. And, Canadians, as distinct from the media, may be more tolerant of public figure speaking English as a second language, if only because of the numbers of ESL speakers have grown so much. Being leader of the opposition in a minority parliament puts Dion at a significant disadvantage. He must constantly compromise, and avoid confrontation, until such a time as he judges the party will be competitive in an election. However, most of this parliamentary scheming will be forgotten once the writ is dropped.

The serious Dion disadvantage is the Liberal Party itself. UBC political scientist Ken Carty has talked about how the private armies of the Liberal leadership candidates have stayed intact. Instead of disbanding after the contest has ended, and going home, officers and soldiers remain on the battlefield, causing problems for the winner.

The Ignatieff army, headed in Quebec by General Denis Coderre, has its origins in the Martin forces that sent Jean Chrétien home early. The Rae army was built on the defeated Chrétien troops, which had earlier bested Martin in the pivotal leadership race to replace John Turner.

The Chrétien army was built when he previously lost a bitter contest to Turner. Indeed, the origins of the Martin/Ignatieff leadership army date back to the election of Pierre Trudeau as party leader in 1968, when John Turner decided to keep in readiness for the next time the small combat group that had fought alongside him against Trudeau. Thus, the core for the Turner, Martin battles against Chrétien (and now both against Dion) date back to 1968.

Unlike Rae and Ignatieff, Dion has no army in Quebec. He had little leadership support in his home province, and his first ballot support was only 17 per cent, meaning he has more potential opponents than supporters among Liberals across the country.

In the months to come Dion will focus on the Liberal team, and contrast it to the Harper one-man band. But, in order to get people, especially Liberals, to move forward the leader must define the issues facing the country. To help do this, Dion gave Bob Rae a key role in coming up with an electoral programme. On this surface this is a strange choice, since Rae has never hidden he thinks leadership, and not policy, is what matters in politics.

If there is a Dion leadership style it is that of the coach, not the star player. He can be the person behind the bench, getting the right players on the ice. Then his challenge is clear: he must get his players to play for him.

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