Perennially underestimated, ungainly and bookish, Stéphane Dion has become a key player in the Liberal leadership race

October 9 2006


Perennially underestimated, ungainly and bookish, Stéphane Dion has become a key player in the Liberal leadership race

October 9 2006


Perennially underestimated, ungainly and bookish, Stéphane Dion has become a key player in the Liberal leadership race


In a three-day blitz ending Sunday evening, Liberals in 308 ridings across Canada will elect delegates to the party’s December leadership convention. Delegates are committed to a specific candidate, for the first ballot anyway. So soon, at last, we will have a concrete measure of the support each candidate commands.

After all the guesses and hunches, finally some hard data. The arrival of hard data has almost always made Stéphane Dion feel better.

Last Jan. 15—eight days before the election that tossed the Liberals from power—marked a decade since Dion took a leave of absence from the Université de Montréal to become a minister in Jean Chrétien’s government. The university quietly contacted him to say that if he did not come back to academe now he would lose the option. He told them he would stay. Parliament was home now.

But habits bred on campus are hard to break. Dion has always craved information. No candidate will pay closer attention to the results from the delegate-selection “Super Weekend” than Dion, because for none of them do the results matter more. If he con-

founds low expectations and manages to elect more delegates than all but one or two other candidates, he will have to be considered a front-runner. If he falls short he may yet play a kingmaker’s role at the convention.

A word to the wise: when the subject is Dion and the odds are long, it is generally a good idea to bet against the house.

When he took the bus to Ottawa in 1996 to become Jean Chrétien’s unity minister, staffers transferred to his office to prep him for the daily indignity of Question Period assumed he would crumble within weeks. (It had already happened once to a Chrétien minister, the gentle and hapless Michel Dupuy.) Yet Dion survived and thrived in the hothouse of Parliament.

When he wrote his first myth-busting letter to Lucien Bouchard in 1997, everyone who claimed to know anything about Quebec

announced he would only make matters worse. “There’s going to be a major circling of the wagons,” Jean Charest said. “This is going to backfire.” It didn’t.

Lucien Bouchard called him a “little man” who “does not exist for me.” Bernard Landry called him a “warmonger,” a “desperado”

and “the most hated man in Quebec politics.” Bouchard and Landry have retired from politics. Dion remains.

When Paul Martin became Liberal leader, he told Dion it was time for new faces with new ideas. “Then I’ll send you new ideas,” Dion said. Within two days a discussion paper with new policies for the economy, environment and the mechanics of federalism was on Martin’s desk. He shuffled Dion to the backbenches anyway. Dion became such a star at weekly caucus meetings—and then, during the 2004 election, such a key player in the Liberals’ late-inning recovery from complete collapse in Quebec—that he was back in cabinet immediately after the election.

In the weeks before he announced he would run to replace Martin as leader, a headline appeared in Le Devoir: “Même Dion serait de la course.” Even Dion might run. As in, it’s come to this. In March, newspaper editorials mentioning the key players in the leadership race consistently failed to mention Dion. In April, he launched his campaign on the same day as Michael Ignatieff, in a room half as big, half as crowded, and essentially empty of high-wattage Liberal celebrities.

“There was a great deal of comfort with the contrast between what we were doing and saying and what Ignatieff was going to do and say,” a Dion staffer said in an interview last week. “There was a more genuine sentiment.” If the Dion insider had made that claim on the day in question, back in April, it would have sounded like a sad at-

tempt to put lipstick on a pig. But other candidates who hoped to break from the pack— Ken Dryden, Scott Brison, perhaps even the former Ontario cabinet minister Gerard Kennedy—have struggled to get any traction. Stéphane Dion, on the other hand, has become a player.

A Strategic Counsel poll of card-carrying Liberals last week showed Dion at 13 per cent when respondents were asked for their first choice as leader, behind Michael Ignatieff at 19 per cent and Bob Rae at 17 per cent. But when respondents were asked who would make the best prime minister, the knot of front-runners tightened considerably: Ignatieff was named by 16 per cent, Rae by 15 per cent, and Dion close behind at 13 per cent. Perhaps just as significant, in a race that will almost certainly come down to multiple ballots on the Montreal convention floor, Dion is named far less often when Liberals are asked who they absolutely do not want for leader: he was named as the don’t-go-there guy by only two per cent of Liberals, compared to nine per cent for Rae and 12 per cent for Ignatieff.

A few days later, an Ekos poll suggested that after all the progress Dion has made, he still faces an uphill climb. Although 17 per cent named him as their first choice for leader, a respectable third to Rae and Ignatieff who had 25 per cent each, there seems to be a sense that he can’t close the deal. When asked who would be likeliest to win an election as leader, Rae and Ignatieff were both named by 25 per cent. Dion was named by only nine per cent.

After all this time, a party dedicated to winning is not sure Stéphane Dion looks like a winner.

“Because I’ve been there for 10 years, there are a lot of ideas about me that are some-

times very flattering,” he said in an interview. “But there are also myths I have to work on.” Which myths? “That I’m a cold person, or I have no charisma, or I don’t know how to speak English. Or that I couldn’t deliver in Quebec. Or I couldn’t deliver in the rest of the country.” That’s a lot of myths, if myths are what they are. “So I have to give people a chance to see me. And because expectations are sometimes very low, it gives good results. But I have to go see them.”


That’s why Dion spent the early months of his campaign playing against type, gladhanding Liberals in small-scale meetings and eschewing, until more recently, the grand policy pronouncements that had been his

stock in trade.

Retail politics paid early dividends, which is good because it had to. The young staffers who worked around Dion when he was a minister were notorious in Liberal Ottawa for their earnest demeanour, solid work ethic, and utter naïveté in the ways of practical electoral politics. So the first step in Dion’s journey toward political credibility came in March, when he visited the Vancouver home of Mark Marissen and Christy Clark to give a talk to a small group of British Columbia Liberals. Clark is a former deputy premier of British Columbia. Marissen was Paul Martin’s lead political organizer in B.C. Unlike many Martin organizers, Marissen delivers: the Liberals gained seats in B.C. in both the 2004 and 2006 elections.

Dion’s visit was little more than a courtesy call. Marissen and Clark were inviting any Liberal who was considering a run at the leadership to come out to their house and kick the tires. But something about Dion’s improvised remarks from the top of the stairs appealed to Marissen, and he signed on as the owlish prof’s national campaign director.


The next coup for Dion’s retail politics came several weeks later, when he visited Herb Metcalfe, a veteran Ottawa lobbyist and Liberal éminence grise who had—nobody’s perfect—played a key role in John Manley’s catastrophic run for the leadership in 2003. Metcalfe was meeting every potential candidate, asking them what they would want their legacy to be if they survived a decade as prime minister. Almost none had a persuasive answer. (Belinda Stronach said, “Let me get back to you.”)

But Dion was ready to describe a legacy. His reply was short and, to Metcalfe’s ears, sweet: “A united Canada that offers a better standard of living and uses fewer resources.” Metcalfe, too, signed on to the Dion campaign. When asked to describe his role, he says, simply, “Father.”

“It is absolutely him that reels them into the boat every time,” a Dion staffer said last week. Dion, a 50year-old who had made his entire career in universities until Chrétien summoned him at the end of 1995, is no born schmoozer. But he remains a quick study. When he first discussed a leadership bid after the January election debacle, he had no understanding of the process at all. “He asked us why he needed to organize. He wanted to know why he couldn’t just show up at the convention, deliver the best speech and win,” the campaign staffer said.

But with counsel from Marissen, Metcalfe and others, he soon got the hang of leadership organizing. “In about a month and a half he went from looking at us like we had horns when we talked about this stuff, to asking really pointed questions about how to do this better,” the campaign staffer said. “Classic Dion.”

Indeed, the rise of the bookish troika who may well be the last men standing when Liberals pick their new leader represents a change—maybe not permanent, but striking while it lasts—in the culture of the Liberal Party of Canada. Bob Rae was a Rhodes Scholar. Michael Ignatieffis an internationally prominent academic and essayist whose biggest challenge in this race has been to shake the odour of Harvard Yard. Dion’s c.v. is competitive with Ignatieff’s: doctorate from the Institut d’Etudes politiques de Paris, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, codirector of the Canadian Journal of Political Science. It is little short of startling that the party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin is preparing to put its hopes into one of these three eggheads.

In The Big Test, his book about the history

of educational testing in the United States, Nicholas Lemann describes three routes to leadership in American society. “Lifers” look like Chrétien: people “whose college education was... routine” and who “went on to beginner jobs in large organizations”—like Parliament—“and tried to rise to the top.” Lifers master complex rule systems and win because they can outwit less seasoned competitors. “Talents” come from outside a system and shake it up, as Lee Iacocca did in business, and Lucien Bouchard did in politics. Talents depend on surprise, speed and widespread disorientation to succeed. The oldest mistake in politics is to rise as a Lifer and think you’re a Talent: that’s Paul Martin’s story in a nutshell.

Lemann’s third type, the “Mandarin,” is more mysterious because we don’t see them very often in Canadian politics. Mandarins, Lemann writes, “went to outstanding colleges and then on to professional schools.” Their skills are portable: you can throw them into a novel situation and they will adapt and thrive. They seek a “highly regulated and organized” society, Lemann writes, “with a group of experts at the helm.”

Liberals don’t like to admit their errors, even en famille, but there is a hint of atonement in their collective decision to elevate the Mandarins and demote the Lifers (hello,

Joe Volpe) among their aspiring leaders. A sense that the Adscam mess and the excesses of the Martin leadership campaign became possible because there was a little too much mastery of Ottawa’s complex rules going on, not enough dispassionate analysis. Dion, Rae and Ignatieff represent the old party’s cleaning crew.

This is no guarantee of success—and may in fact be reflected in the numbers that show Liberals think him less likely to win an election—but in a race dominated by Mandarins, Dion is the most Mandarin-like among them.

“He still believes that he will win because of policy,” the campaign staffer reported last week. The other stuff, the presence and polish most ambitious politicians strive for, must very nearly be forced on Dion. This is most evident in his continuing inability to express himself clearly in English.

At an unofficial debate among Liberal leadership candidates last month in Surrey, B.C., Dion’s lofty ambitions and limited grammar made him sound like an ungainly cross between Walt Whitman and Gumby.

“Look your resources and oceans!” he told the crowd. “Look your forests!” The “crisis of energy,” he said gravely, “is coming big like the moon.” And near the end, with the air of somebody who was delivering the bottom-line rationale for his entire political career, he said: “We are playing the role of Canada in the century.”

Listeners with some knowledge of French have more luck decoding Dion than others. What he meant to say was, “What is at

stake is the role Canada can play in the new century.” But it doesn’t come out that way. And while his staff have hired dialect coaches to make his pronunciation more comprehensible, the rigours of constant campaigning have left him with little time to improve his English.

But there is an element of fearlessness to Dion that keeps surprising Liberals by how frequently it charms them. A cartoonist for La Presse drew him as a rat for eight years; he is long past getting rattled by a little controversy. One of the questions at the


Surrey debate was about soaring gasoline prices. It was, in effect, an invitation to pander to Liberals on a consumer issue. Dion refused to play. “I have bad news,” he announced cheerfully. “It will only get worse.” With China putting millions of new cars on the road every month, he said, Canada had better use less fuel if Canadians want lower fuel bills.

This eat-your-spinach theme keeps recurring in Dion’s discourse, and if nothing else it has the virtue of bracing novelty. At a fundraiser in August in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighbourhood, Dion came close to arguing that he would solve Canada’s national unity tensions by assigning difficult homework to everyone. “The goal I want to give my country is so demanding, so difficult, so ambitious, that we can only

succeed if everyone contributes,” he said.

This is the “three pillars” philosophy at the centre of Dion’s campaign. It excites him terribly—“I know of no project more engrossing,” he says at every stop. It is, simply, that a clean environment must be elevated to the same priority as social justice and a competitive economy among Liberal values. But since Dion was environment minister the last time he was minister of anything, he winds up talking more often about the environment than anything else. He has not scheduled a major speech about economic issues until October—after the Super Weekend delegate elections.

Here again, Dion comes off a little tone deaf. The same Ekos poll that showed Liberal skepticism about his ability to win an election suggested Dion’s favoured topics aren’t Liberals’. When asked what issues were most important for a government, 34 per cent of Liberals named the economy; 26 per cent named social programs; and a comparatively slim 21 per cent named the environment.

So the quick learner who was such a surprise as a cabinet minister, and then as a backbencher, and then as a leadership candidate surging from the back of the pack, has not yet persuaded Liberals he can master the skill they treasure most: winning. Yet even though, as a Dion admirer for more than a decade, I have also found his performance in this campaign less than entirely convincing, I can’t help hoping Liberals give him a second look.

Michael Ignatieff has been far less surefooted since he left the campus than Dion was at a similar point in his own transition. Ignatieff’s former support for the war in Iraq and his current support for the Afghanistan deployment make him a hard sell in Quebec. His support for reopening the Constitution to recognize a “Quebec nation” makes him a harder sell everywhere else. Rae’s experience and his battle-hardened campaign team, led by his brother John Rae, are real assets. But, as a senior Conservative MP told me this week, “We’ve already got the ads in the can: ‘He’ll do to Canada what he did to Ontario.’ ”

Dion offers only confidence, encyclopedic interests, and a decade at the centre of the nation’s most gruelling debates, a trial by fire that he endured, we can say now in hindsight, with extraordinary good grace. He has surprised his adopted party at every turn. It would be reasonable to expect he is not done surprising. M