Are Dion Liberals dead ducks .. and why isnt PM Harper doing a lot better if they are?

Jul 31st, 2007 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Some would say it is hard to think of another time in living memory when the fortunes of the once mighty Liberal Party of Canada looked bleaker than they do in the summer of 2007. The party’s late 20th century godfather Pierre Trudeau has just “topped an Internet poll as the worst Canadian.” And the only strong argument for current leader Stephane Dion is that no one thought he had a chance at last year’s Montreal convention either, but he finally did take the prize. Yet if all this is altogether true, why is the Calgary Sun reporting that ” the federal Conservative caucus meets this week in Charlottetown to discuss the government’s future and give seldom-heard MPs a voice … The mid-summer strategy session … marks the unofficial launch of the second stage of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority mandate.” And with the latest opinion polls showing the “Tories mired in an ongoing dead heat with Liberals – both far shy of majority government support – there is plenty for the 125 MPs and 24 senators to discuss”?

Losing MPs

Thumbing through the recent news clippings in a box dragged up to the cottage, the story seems to begin with a July 12 report by Jane Taber in the Globe and Mail: “Dion loses a fifth Liberal MP.”

The earlier departure of “long-time Liberals Jean Lapierre, Bill Graham, Jim Peterson and Stephen Owen” was arguably not all that alarming. In particular: “Mr. Graham and Mr. Peterson, both Toronto MPs, stepped down late last month in an effort to force by-elections to bring in new Liberal blood – unsuccessful leadership candidates Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay are the nominated candidates in their two Toronto ridings.”

But the latest loss of 42-year-old “Saskatchewan MP Gary Merasty, who backed Michael Ignatieff for the leadership” and “is Cree and a former grand chief” and “one of only two Liberal MPs in Saskatchewan,” has darker undertones.

As Ms. Taber explained: “Some Grits consider him one of the top next-generation leaders in the party and one veteran Liberal called his departure a loss to the party and a reflection of Mr. Dion’s leadership.”

A party in debt

Less than two weeks later the Canadian Press was reporting that: “Special Liberal fundraising events have so far failed to put much of a dent in the almost $4 million in debts racked up by 11 former leadership contenders …

“The first event in Halifax two weeks ago – a cocktail reception featuring Leader Stephane Dion and six of his erstwhile rivals – attracted about 60 people who paid $250 each. After expenses, however,” this left “the seven former leadership contenders who participated … each with about $750,” which was not “enough to cover even air fare to Halifax for some candidates.”

A similar event in Ottawa “a couple of days later was somewhat more successful, attracting about 100 people at $250 a head.” But even this was “enough of a bust that two similar fundraisers planned for Toronto the following week were cancelled.”

Party organizers “said the events were an opportunity for us to test an approach to joint fundraising’ … the party recognizes that holding events in July, when many Canadians take vacation, is too difficult and officials are now concentrating on organizing two joint leadership fundraisers in Ontario next month, in Markham and Windsor.”

Another mini financial scandal?

On July 25 the National Post reported that: “A former Liberal riding association treasurer has been arrested for stealing more than $13,000, and a senior federal party official is accused of attempting to cover up the alleged crime …

“David Pretlove, the interim financial director of the Liberal Party of Canada’s Ontario wing, offered to reimburse the Elgin-Middlesex-London Riding Association [EMLFLA ] with party funds if it took no further action against the alleged fraudster, Suzan Pawlak … This is an attempted cover-up,’ says the riding’s Conservative MP Joe Preston. This sounds above and beyond what happens at a grassroots level.'”

This prompted the Western Standard to opine the next day: “The post-Gomery Liberal Party is a lot like the pre-Gomery Liberal Party … And Stephane Dion’s reaction to the financial shenanigans in the Ontario branch of the federal Liberal Party? We haven’t heard a thing.”

A more measured reading of the Post story might suggest that this is a minor tale of human foibles, of a sort with which all political parties in Canada and many other places are familiar. As in: “Ms. Pawlak’s former boss, Gar Knutson, described Ms. Pawlak as a single mother of modest means … Surprised by the charges against his former employee, the former Minister of State for International Trade … said she was very conscientious and was one of his better employees. It’s out of character, but sometimes good people make bad decisions.'”

Not easy being green?

Back when he was running for the Liberal leadership Stephane Dion was Mr. Environment. (Canada’s Al Gore and more, some might say.) And his deal with new Green Party leader Elizabeth May, not to run a Liberal candidate in the next federal election in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova, where Ms. May has already “started her campaign to unseat Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay,” has been widely regarded as one of the few interesting things he has actually done as new Liberal leader.

But just how successful is the move likely to be? To start with, in Canada the “environment and global warming – mentioned by one-third of the population as top issues – continues to be seen as the most important issue affecting the world today, far ahead of war (7%), turmoil in Iraq and the Middle East (6%), conflict in Afghanistan (5%) and poverty (5%), according to a new survey by TNS Canadian Facts. Almost everyone thinks that global warming is a serious issue facing us today (91% agree) and supports immediate action (89%). Support for action is driven by a clear sense that global warming is not merely a theory; more than eight in 10 are convinced that global warming has been scientifically proven.”

At the same time, pollster “Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos Reid,” believes this kind of potential green support “won’t translate into extra votes in an actual election” for the Green Party or for its vaguely allied Liberal friends, “since many of the respondents will not show up at the ballot station … the problem is that the people they appeal to aren’t necessarily committed to the electoral process. So you phone them up on the telephone and they say, yeah, I’m going to vote Green,’ but then they don’t actually vote.”

On the other hand again, rival “pollster Keith Neuman at Environics Research Group said the Green party appears to be the only one with momentum. The others have made no headway since the January 2006 election. He said the new support for the Greens, who have yet to elect an MP, is partly due to the environment becoming the top issue in national polls, combined with the profile the party derives from its new leader.” (And then yet again, does any of this mean Elizabeth May can unseat Peter MacKay, who follows in the footsteps of his former MP father Elmer, in a Nova Scotia riding like Central Nova. And even if she does manage such a feat, would it ultimately do M. Dion and the Liberals all that much or even any good?)

Wobbly big picture?

Who knows what all this really means for the biggest picture, somewhere in the Gatineau hills around Ottawa? Those who think it definitely means that the Dion Liberals certainly are dead ducks might want to consult the July 31 Edmonton Sun for additional advice:

In fact things may not be all that “gloomy for Stephane Dion … his accord with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has laid the groundwork for strategic voting growth for the Liberals … In the ballot box, with a local Green win as a remote possibility … principled soft-Green voters could tick the Liberal option. At 10% nationally, a marginal swing from the Greens to the Liberals could have an impact in tight races in Ontario and British Columbia.”

And then don’t “underestimate the resiliency of the Liberal brand. In theory the Liberals should have been trounced in the last federal election.” But they “still managed to deny the Tories anything close to a majority government … Finally, expectations for Stephane Dion are so low that anything resembling a political pulse will likely be touted as Liberal momentum and rejuvenation.”

Stephane Dion may still be very unlikely to become the next prime minister of Canada in the next Canadian federal election. Stephen Harper does show considerably better in the leadership polls, even if the ultimate party votes are currently neck and neck. And Mr. Harper is after all the man from the new West, where the dynamism of Canada definitely resides right now. It still doesn’t seem all that bad a bet, however, that the Dion Liberals will be able to keep the Harper Conservatives safely out of majority government territory.

In the longer term the bigger story still just may be that the Liberals are rising provincially as the new party of the dynamic far Canadian West. Start, e.g., with Gordon Campbell’s current governing Liberal Party in BC. This may not quite be the old Liberalism of Pierre Trudeau and all that. But it is not the old Whacky Bennet style of right-wing Social Credit provincial government either. And then consider the latest rumblings in Calgary – a city currently welcoming people from all across Canada (and even around the world):

“There’s no question that Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier is creating all sorts of political mayhem … The Tories’ 19-point drop in the polls in Cowtown and the loss to the Liberals in the Calgary Elbow byelection can be attributed to Bronco’s belly aching … But now it’s Bronconnier’s turn to cry as he let his Ottawa Liberal roots show through, and last week joined a majority of Calgary aldermen who voted down putting Support our Troops’ decals on City of Calgary vehicles.” (A cause that did rather better in the terrible old “hyper-urban, socially ultra-liberal” Toronto back east, by the way.)

By-election tests

Assuming nothing quite so drastic as another full-blown federal election is precipitated in Ottawa this fall, the interim test of all current local and regional political theories will come in by-elections for “two vacant Quebec seats, plus up to six more across the country where the sitting MP has resigned or soon will.”

The Liberals had been “crossing their fingers that the Prime Minister will set a common date” for all of these contests. As Jim Travers at the Toronto Star reported a while ago, however, “that’s not in Conservative interests … multiple contests in ridings mostly won by Liberals in the last election” would be just too much of a potential gift to the Loyal Opposition. It might even “let Dion assemble in Parliament the so-called dream team now missing only Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay” (even if that may not be “ultimately a good thing for a leader watching his back.”

What we do know now (as of July 29) is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced “by-elections yesterday to fill seats left empty in the Montreal riding of Outremont and the Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot riding east of the city.” These two Quebec contests will be held on September 17.

If the Liberals win in both Quebec places, Stephane Dion may finally start to emerge as a political figure of some account and potential promise. On the other hand: “Defeat would tell Liberals their leader isn’t rebuilding the Quebec base despite brave talk about his integrity and intellect, provincial bloodlines, and popular positions on the environment and Afghanistan … Couple that to a party going nowhere in the polls, and dangerously low approval ratings, and Dion’s position becomes precarious. Those Liberals who are still trying to decide if they want their party to succeed in the next election or Dion to fail would then have another reason to tilt away from a leader too many consider autocratic and/or inept … Stripped to essentials, politics is about winning and Dion must still prove to his party and to Canadians that he has what it takes to win more than a very peculiar convention.”

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