The Dion leadership challenge

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History suggests all Liberal leaders eventually become Canadaâe(TM)s prime minister, either briefly, as John Turner did, or over three decades, as Mackenzie King did. If the precedent holds, Stéphane Dion should succeed Stephen Harper. Thatâe(TM)s if he can hold on as Liberal leader.

As parliament rises at the end of this week for its summer recess, the Conservatives look to be on the downward slide that will allow the Liberals to form the next (likely) minority government. The âeoeAtlantic disaccordâe over natural-resource revenue and equalization payments encapsulates what the Conservatives have done wrong. Instead of building alliances, brokering differences and alleviating bad feelings, Harper has divided the population on a series of issues important to voters: native affairs, the environment, Afghanistan, off-shore revenues, gay marriage, private healthcare, tax breaks for the wealthy, the gun registry and George W. Bush.

Each time the prime minister takes a strong ideology-driven position, he alienates a portion of the population. If five to ten per cent of Canadians feel strongly enough about any one issue to move away from the Conservatives, and the Conservatives take ten controversial stands, nobody but hardcore Conservatives will be left supporting the party.

Understanding the importance of not dividing Canadians has been the reason the Liberals are called the natural governing party, and it explains why Liberal governments have held power over much of the last century. Political scientists call this method of governing âeoebrokerage,âe and the Liberals, when they are successful, operate as a brokerage party, traditionally bridging the gap between French and English speakers and, when it mattered, between Catholics and Protestants, to create a Canadian political identity that also transcends, for a time, regional differences.

Until Conservative party troubles in the Atlantic region surged forward, the bigger Ottawa story was the weak performance of would-be broker Stéphane Dion. Dion was being outshone in the House by his leadership rival Michael Ignatieff. In the media, his command of English was inadequate, and in the country, he was less trusted as a political leader than NDP leader Jack Layton.

The low point for Dion was being booed off the stage at a Parliament Hill rally for workers protesting manufacturing job loss. His failure to support anti-scab legislation did not go unnoticed.

Bringing people together across the divides of language, religion, race, region and gender is not easy for a Canadian party leader. The Liberal formula has included attracting labour and business voters to the same party. Jean Chrétien was able to win three consecutive majority governments in part because he was personally popular among unionized workers. Dion has no such advantage. Instead he wants to broker a new green economic coalition, likely business dominated, to compete on environmental issues for voters leaning Conservative, NDP or Green Party.

The brokerage party leader incarnates the party, which according to University of British Columbia political scientist Ken Carty is why the Liberal party spent more on the recent leadership race than in the last election campaign. Carty explains that brokerage party leadership contests are vicious, because the winner gets to call all the shots.In her new biography of Dion, Linda Diebel refers to what Liberal strategists see as his appeal: he is the anti-celebrity political figure, a competent, honest guy who just wants to do a good job for his country.In effect, should Dion campaign as the leader, but not the star of the party, he could overcome the unease most voters will have with his unfriendly political persona.

The Liberals entered the twenty-first century without the voter support in Francophone Quebec that made them the winner of most elections held in the previous century. Continued electoral support for the Bloc Québécois virtually guarantees the next government will be a minority. Not having a secure party base in his own region makes Dion even more of a target for Liberals still fighting the Chrétien-Martin wars, let alone his own leadership rivals. Depending on which Liberal you talk to, Dion has too many Martinites planning strategy or had secret Chrétien support behind his leadership campaign. Party infighting is particularly vicious in Quebec, but extends across the country. The stakes are high. This is the natural governing party after all. But Pierre Trudeau was able to overcome constant leadership discontent emanating from John Turner supporters; Turner eventually fell under siege from Chrétien people that continued unabated during the 1988 election campaign; and Martin finished off Chrétien by taking control of the party away from the leader.

Party history says the major challenge for Stéphane Dion in the coming months will be to establish his leadership of the Liberal party. If he can do it, he becomes prime minister.

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