Monday, October 20, 2008

The Honourable Stéphane Dion

We like Stéphane Dion as a person and as a crusader for both the environment and for the unity of Canada. We have many times defended him by calling him Captain Canada fighting against Mr. Firewall Harper, or as Mr. Integrity vs Deceivin' Stephen. The Liberal Party chose him in 2006 and he has had my unquestioned loyalty since then.

But that doesn't mean we have been blind to certain problems with his leadership, deep problems.

Some of those problems are not his but endemic within the party itself, but others are his.

At the little website, we support and call for Frank McKenna for Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister of Canada, not because of the inadequacies and failings of Stéphane Dion, but because of the capabilities and successes of Frank McKenna.

Still, Stéphane Dion is the leader and before we can advocate for another, the onus is fully on those who would oust him to justify the potentially divisive and damaging move to remove him, and to justify it on grounds showing that a change would make a difference.

Stéphane Dion is not the man that we have allowed the Conservatives and NDP coalition to paint him as. Still, every myth has some element of truth to it. Stéphane Dion was a successful and hardworking cabinet minister with two difficult portfolios under two different and strongly opposing Liberal leaders. Unlike any of the other serious candidates last leadership race, he sat at the cabinet table, and did so with both Chrétien and with Martin. And yet, as I recall, not a single one of those cabinet ministers endorsed him in the lead-up to the convention. Dion also had a great deal of difficulty raising funds: only Bob Rae had a higher debt-to-funds raised ratio, if memory serves. His communication skills - not just a language issue, but his ability to communicate to voters and potential supporters - was always noted as an issue. There was a real reason that the Conservatives chose "leadership" as their attack point in trying to define Dion.

Leadership is not simply to have the grand vision or and to get people to do what you want. These are two pillars of leadership. Dion had one and Harper has the other. The third critical element to leadership, though, is judgement. A subset of good judgement in this arena is sound political judgement. Dion has demonstrated time and again a lack of good judgement and an acute lack of good political judgement.

From so many stories I have heard from Dion supporters and from others, he had a tin ear for politics, but he also made countless bad judgement calls on a daily basis. I think that is why the knives have come out so early after the election for him. It is not just a devastating, historic, record electoral loss, but those who work with him - or, rather, those who have tried to work with him - saw this coming a long long time ago.

What did we need in a new Liberal leader in 2006?
  • Primarily, someone who would not further divide the party after the self-inflicted wounds of Turner-Chrétien-Martin fights. We think Dion gets a B/B+ for his efforts in that regard.
  • Someone who could rebuild the internal infrastructure of the party. Dion gets an F here.
  • Someone who could re-invent the fundraising strategies of the party and right the listing fiscal ship. Is there something lower than F?
  • Someone who could re-connect with the voters through personality, policy and vision. I actually am less negative on this front than many, but can really only give him a D+/C-.

Just this summer we learned about the Green Shift and whatever you think about it as a policy, it is exactly the kind of thing we needed on policy and vision. But that could never be enough and there was such a crappy communications stategy around it and around all other policies that one wonders if there was any strategy behind their communications. To come out with the Green Shift as the chief electoral plank was risky enough but not have a clear and simple and consistent way to communicate and explain, necessarily meant that Harper would explain it for us. But what else was there? Every now and then over the last two years, the Liberals would seem to come out with some other plank - something here on poverty, something here on competitiveness - that showed some promise only to see it disappear from any talking points the very next week.

The communications problems were more than just communications problems. They were evidence of poor guidance and judgement from the leader. And there are countless examples of poor judgement. The timing and communication strategy around the Green Shift is arguably one of the biggest. The endorsing another candidate and party, the Green Party, and skipping out on campaiging in a riding to do so, after a convention when we all literally talked about and wanted a 308 riding strategy and fight. One week they'd be pummelling Harper over detainees and seeing the polls shift, the very next week they stop those gains cold by calling a Parliamentary hearing into what Shane Doan did or did not say on the ice after a skirmish... a couple of years ago.

Some will and certainly are claiming that all of Dion's problems are because he was constantly being undermined by Rae and Ignatieff. From my vantage point, this was more than half Dion's own fault. All the leadership candidates had debt from the race, but despite several attempts by most of the candidates, Dion refused to do anything collective about the debt. The debt was a party problem: it meant former candidates had to fend for themselves and raise funds or else face personal debt, instead of raising funds for the party. It also meant that the candidates had to keep their campaign teams together to organize. So that was an early very bad judgement call.

He compounded this by not reaching out. The inner circle around Dion was almost exclusively Dion campaign supporters. But they did not have the necessary experience to run the OLO or to give Dion good advice. Worse, they created a siege mentality where every comment, constructive criticism, individual act not approved by them was turned into a leadership challenge. A real leader and a real leadership team does not feel so insecure. So Bob Rae goes out and organizes a big fundraiser because the party isn't going to help him and he gets accused of trying to outshine and undermine the leader. Iggy and Kennedy the same.

We know of one specific example of an Ignatieff supporter in the communications team who provided draft Question Period questions to Dion's staff; they rejected them and told him to give the questions to the Deputy Leader. Surprise surprise, who is quoted on the news that night, but the well formed and understood Deputy Leader's question. Next day, Dion has a meeting and is screaming about "Why does Ignatieff get all the good questions? Why is no one writing good questions for me?" So what happens then? Our good friend gets blamed for trying to undermine Dion by giving good questions to Ignatieff and bad questions to Dion. There are countless examples just like this.

This is why the knives are out so quickly. Dion lost the support of caucus; they did not simply start trying to undermine him.

And why the rush? These problems are not the kind that can simply be fixed by better communications and media and language training, of the kind Dion finally started taking last year after a lot of pressure from caucus and resistance by him and his team. So we know the problems will not get fixed, but will continue to get worse.

The Liberals lost almost a million votes in this election. There is a financial cost to that at a time when the party is unable to compete with the Conservatives for funds. There is a potentially huge political cost too. If we continue to languish as a viable and strong opposition, then voters will find someone who will be that viable and strong opposition.

We have the greatest of respects for Stéphane Dion. He is a great Canadian and a great and loyal Liberal. But, like Joe Clark almost three decades ago, the Peter Principle unfortunately applies. I would love to see him stick around, as interim leader, and then beyond as the next Minister of the Environment or in some other portfolio. When given direction by a superior - Chrétien with unity, Martin with the environment - he not only succeeds, Dion thrives.

But timing is an issue. We have a convention lined up in May. Do we want to spend the millions of dollars to have a leadership review only to then have a leadership convention later the same year? Or do we want to get on with rebuilding the party and use that time to chose the next Prime Minister?

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