How Stéphane Dion Broke the Liberal Party

The Hotel Place d'Armes is a symbol for Stéphane DION, a symbol of rebirth, of triumph in the home stretch, of expert prognostications confounded with a thump.

How Stéphane Dion Broke the Liberal Party

The Hotel Place d'Armes is a symbol for Stéphane DION, a symbol of rebirth, of triumph in the home stretch, of expert prognostications confounded with a thump. Dion used the elegantly refurbished Montreal hotel as the headquarters for his unlikely victory at the 2006 LIBERAL leadership convention, when he won only 18 per cent on the first ballot yet somehow managed to win the big prize. So he returns there now, whenever he needs to remind everyone that he is not beaten and must not be counted out.

He has had to become a bit of a regular.

"You've been away," the lady from the Toronto Star told me as we awaited at a recent news conference featuring Dion and the fractious executive of his party's Quebec wing, "so just for you, they're going to re-enact the show they put on here last fall."

And indeed it was very nearly so. Dion strode into the room, looking determined. Flanking him were his Quebec political lieutenant, Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, and the president of the party's Quebec wing, Robert Fragasso, faces drawn. Assorted MPs, senators and party officials joined the leader in a clump on a riser while cameras whirred and clicked. Dion pronounced the party united and eager, with "a better team" and "better values" than the HARPER Conservatives. His colleagues applauded in a manner that might as well have been designed to illustrate the term "smattering." Then they trooped out again.

In its staging and message, not only its locale, this show resembled one Dion and his Quebec team held last autumn after he managed to lose the Liberal bastion of Outremont in a by-election. Now, as then, some of the party's looser cannons were saying the leader had to go. Now, as then, Dion counselled patience and optimism. "I am the leader," he said. "As leader, I have a right to more discipline."

It is generally not a good idea for leaders to explain how their party should help them rather than explaining how they can help, say, the Canadian people. At any rate, Dion's latest Place d'Armes show and tell did little good. Only four days later, La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal was putting the finishing touches on a column about Dion's travails. Marissal had come across a list of 32 Liberal candidates in Quebec, well short of the 75 needed to run in every Quebec riding. He phoned the party's headquarters and asked whether the number was accurate. Within hours the party had sent lawyers to La Presse's offices on St. Jacques St. with word of an injunction against publishing the list.

There followed a week from hell whose only consolation was that it was neither the first for Dion nor his last. A news nugget that would have been a paragraph at the bottom of an opinion column became a front-page story about the bizarre injunction. Red-faced MPs in Ottawa had to explain that some candidates face job repercussions during this endless pre-election period. Conservatives and New Democrats gleefully mocked the witness protection program the Liberals appeared to be running for their own candidates.

Then the Liberals dropped the injunction. Marissal, party lawyers discovered, had a list, but not the list. Not the super-secret up-to-date list of prospective candidates, the one only five people in the world possess, including Dion, Hervieux-Payette the senator, and Fragasso the party don. Reversing a spectacular and inexplicable legal action is itself news, so the bizarre saga enjoyed a second day on the front pages. By now, Fragasso had realized that Hervieux-Payette had assumed he was the source of the leak, so he organized a conference call of the Quebec executive to discuss her casual assumption of disloyalty. He helpfully informed reporters about the call, ensuring days of still further coverage.

Here was what remained when all was done. A party that had put on a big media show to claim it was finding its feet had instead spent another week staggering forward on bleeding stumps. Marissal's arcane point - that the party of Laurier, Trudeau, Chrétien and, now, yet another Quebecer, can't even fill its candidate slate in Quebec - became well-known to every Montreal newspaper reader and to many more in the rest of the country. Trust between Dion's two leading Quebec emissaries was revealed to be below zero. And during a week when Harper surpassed the 787 days of Paul Martin's entire tenure as prime minister, the Liberals showed again that they are still not close to being election-ready.

Or perhaps not all the Liberals. "You'll hear people around Dion saying the party's not ready for an election," one Liberal who has worked closely with Dion's entourage on party business told Maclean's. "And that was probably true last fall or last spring. But today it's horses--t. The party's ready, more or less. Now when they say the party's not ready, it's code. What they mean is that the leader's not ready. And they can't bring themselves to tell him."

Fourteen months after he became the latest leader of a party with a sterling record of victory, Stéphane Dion's hand on the tiller is not firm. The public is underwhelmed. His MPs are locked in a cycle of bravado and timidity, eternally eager to force an election soon but forever unwilling to face one now.

An important point is clearer today than it was on the December day in 2006 when Dion won the convention: he took the leadership with a more tenuous grasp than any of his predecessors. King, St. Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau, Turner, Chrétien, Martin - every Liberal leader since the dawn of delegated conventions either won unopposed, or led the vote in every round of convention balloting. Dion was third, two votes ahead of fourth. Alone in the history of his party, he came to the leadership with no solid and long-standing base to fall back on.

A second important point has become clear as well. The Liberals are more divided and demoralized than the 2006 returns, which gave them fully 103 seats to the Harper Conservatives' 124, would suggest. This too is a situation Dion inherited. At a 24 Sussex Drive garden party for journalists in June 2006, five months before Dion won the leadership, Stephen Harper told reporters: "I don't think people have begun to realize the extent to which the Liberal party has nearly ceased to exist as a coherent parliamentary organization." Harper and his strategists, neither foolish nor squeamish, have been diligent in exploiting those divisions. It was no coincidence that the first Conservative broadcast ads to assert Dion is "Not A Leader" featured Michael Ignatieff, his erstwhile leadership opponent, in a prominent speaking role.

So Stéphane Dion barely squeaked into what would have been a tough job for anyone. He had a long way to go to prepare his party for government. More than a year later, it remains difficult to measure any progress.

The polling honeymoon after the 2006 convention was not robust, and by February of 2007 Dion was already struggling. A Strategic Counsel poll showed that when asked who could do the best job as prime minister, 36 per cent of respondents named Harper, 18 per cent Dion and 16 per cent Jack Layton of the NDP. Outside Quebec, Layton and Dion were tied. But it was early days. The Tories had run their first "Not A Leader" ads, Dion had not riposted, and, as former Chrétien-era justice minister Allan Rock wrote, "There is much water to pass under the bridge before Canadians face the choice they will make in the next election."

That was more than a year ago. The latest Strategic Counsel poll for CTV and The Globe and Mail, in February, showed the Harper Conservatives with a 12-point national lead over the Liberals. In Quebec, Dion's party commands 19 per cent support, lower than in 2006 when Paul Martin drove the party to its lowest share of the Quebec popular vote in history.

When asked who they trusted to be prime minister, 40 per cent across the country named Harper, 15 per cent Dion and 13 per cent Layton. In Quebec Dion came in fourth, behind Harper, Layton, and Duceppe, whose party runs no candidates in nine provinces and who therefore can never be prime minister. Stéphane Dion has fallen and he can't get up.

Why? In conversations with several senior Liberals, many of whom still have roles in the party hierarchy or the election organization and did not want to be quoted, several reasons arise. There is the leader's difficulty explaining himself clearly in either language - it cannot be his heavily accented English that is hurting him among francophone Quebecers.

"He doesn't know what he doesn't know," one long-standing Dion supporter said. "He won't give a stump speech. He had a good speech a while ago about poverty. Caucus said to him, 'All right, give that speech 30 times across the country.' He wouldn't do it. He said, 'My views on poverty are known.' "

Dion's current communications director, Leslie Swartman, is his third in 18 months and will depart this summer on maternity leave. He has publicly foresworn the kind of negative ads with which the Conservatives continue to pummel him as "Not A Leader." His party, which raised a third as much money in 2007 as the Harper Conservatives did, has little budget to run any kind of advertising at all. "I told him we should run an ad that says three things about Harper," one adviser said. "He wanted to take us into Iraq; he wanted to participate in George W. Bush's missile defence program; he wants to keep our soldiers in Afghanistan. This is when I thought we were going to be against extending the mission. That wouldn't be a negative ad. It would be purely factual. And it would frame Harper for a year to come. Dion wouldn't do it."

There is clumsiness in building an organization, a challenge made all the more intimidating by the fragility of the party he inherited. Weeks after he became leader he sent out a restructured party organization with a bewildering maze of consultative committees, regional bodies, subcommittees. Longstanding staffers from Dion's days as a cabinet minister simply shook their heads when asked about it. Complex structures are always a bad idea in politics: they increase points of friction, they multiply opportunities for leaks to the press and they cannot ever work quickly. Fixing them later requires firing people who thought they had been given important responsibilities. But Dion believed his big task after the Martin-Chrétien wars was to build bridges, and he built more bridges than the world has ever seen.

What is most striking is that even people who work closely with Dion and are working hard toward Liberal victory at the next election almost never praise the leader's judgment in private. Instead they speak, with greater or lesser optimism, about whether he can be brought along, like a bright but easily distracted student.

This is the starkest contrast with the way Conservatives used to talk about Harper, during the difficult days before the 2006 election. Back then Harper lagged in the polls, he had his own party yahoos calling publicly on a website for his removal, and the press gallery had written him off. But his caucus was with him. "You should see the way he runs the caucus meeting," MPs used to say.

This seems to be a result of both attitude and action. Dion has made a series of missteps. Last year, Lucienne Robillard, a longtime cabinet minister, and Herb Metcalfe, a veteran Liberal organizer, urged Dion to woo former justice minister Martin Cauchon back into politics to run in the by-election in Cauchon's old Outremont riding. Dion preferred Jocelyn Coulon, an academic and former journalist, as a new face. Coulon managed to lose.

Obliged to shake up his organization, Dion asked Montreal MP Denis Coderre whether he wanted to replace Hull-Aylmer MP Marcel Proulx as Quebec lieutenant. Coderre said he would consider it, then telephoned Proulx to discuss a transition. Problem: Proulx hadn't been told he was going. Insulted, Proulx quit. Stung by the appearance of plotting, Coderre refused the job. So did Pablo Rodriguez, another Montreal MP with real strength as an organizer. Dion had to turn to Hervieux-Payette, a senator who won her last election as an MP in 1980, to lead his parliamentary forces in his home province.

As national election co-chairs, Dion named Mark Marissen, a Vancouverite who ran his campaign for leadership, and Nancy Girard, a one-time candidate with very little profile in Quebec. Months after it became obvious that the party's campaign was supposed to be run by a man on the other side of the Rockies and a woman most Liberals could not pick out of a police lineup, Dion added a third co-chair, Senator David Smith, who used to run Jean Chrétien's Ontario campaigns. Liberals say the party lost more close races in Ontario in 2006 than in every other province put together, and Smith's efforts are seen as crucial if the party is to gain any ground.

So Dion's actions have not always helped the party's fortunes. Perhaps this is because, during his long years in Chrétien's cabinet, he tended to view politics as the curious business of people less serious than he. In 1996, when he had been a minister for only a few months, he travelled to Washington to deliver a speech. At a news conference later, reporters asked him whether life in politics held any surprises for a political scientist. "The only surprise is how unsurprised I am," he said.

He has it in him to be a formidable learner. Starting with little knowledge of the topic in 1990, he entered government in 1995 as one of the world's foremost experts on international law as it relates to secession. In Chrétien's government he showed little public interest in the environment. But in Martin's he floored experts with his mastery of the topic.

But he has to view a topic as worth mastering, and his disdain for electoral politics continues. Chrétien offered him tips, only to be told he was suggesting "old-style politics." As he continued to founder in Quebec, his advisers became desperate for some way to shake up perceptions of Dion there. A Quebec government-appointed panel on "reasonable accommodation," the tricky business of balancing Canadian traditions with the preferences of immigrant groups where they diverge, offered a chance. Some Liberals wanted Dion to address the panel and deliver a forceful plea for diversity and tolerance. He wouldn't hear of it. As a federal politician, he didn't want to elbow in on a provincial process. As so often with Dion, the decision was as principled as it was guaranteed not to improve his situation.

The Liberals' assumption, fading to hope, has been that voters would forgive clumsiness because they sensed sincerity. "You can make a case for Dion," a senior Liberal organizer said, pausing for some time before adding, "People haven't exactly warmed to Harper." This is the core of Liberals' hope, that Harper's policies and cold style make him vulnerable.

But in a string of by-elections the Liberals have fallen short of expectations rather than exceeding them. And history suggests the Liberals may be hoping for too much if they expect Harper to self-destruct so quickly. Only three times in history has a leader come from opposition to win only one election before losing the next, as Liberals hope Harper will do: Joe Clark, R.B. Bennett, Alexander Mackenzie. Every other time the new prime minister was able to hold his advantage against challengers. The task Dion faces would have been hard for any Liberal leader.

It will be harder because Dion insists on fighting with one hand behind his back. How can the election be a referendum on Harper if Harper runs a barrage of ads saying Dion is weak, while Dion runs ads saying he's not weak?

The unaccustomed indignities of opposition and the entrenched neuroses of the Liberal party would tax the skills of a wily strategist with a deep well of loyalty to draw on. Dion landed the big job without the party base and has regarded strategy as something to be mistrusted, not learned. Chrétien, Martin and Dion's leadership opponents learned it is never a good idea to write him off. But the challenge he faces now is far greater than any before it. And his time is growing short.

Maclean's April 21, 2008