Dion better hope Harper delays the vote. He’s got a lot of work to do.
BY JOHN GEDDES, MARTIN PATRIQUIN AND NANCY MACDONALD • Stéphane Dion has no shortage of problems to ponder during Parliament’s Easter break. It’s old news that he squandered the bounce in the polls his Liberals enjoyed after electing him leader late last year, allowing the Tories to whack him down with negative ads early in 2007 Less widely understood is how his party is scrambling to match the Conservatives’ organizational sophistication. A telling indication of the gap: the Tories keep all their party faithful engaged with slick direct-mail, email and telephone lundraising, but the Liberals don’t expect to finish even compiling a national membership list— until recently the jealously guarded purview of provincial party wings—for another year. And now, in the key Quebec battleground, the Tories are plotting to cash in on their ties to Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Quebec party, hoping to borrow the ADQ’s provincial election machine, and momentum, for the coming federal campaign.
With so much to worry Dion, it’s no wonder speculation is rife that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will orchestrate his minority government’s fall someday soon. In fact, if the situation was as clear-cut as the above litany of Dion’s woes suggests, a June election date might be all but certain. There are complicating factors, however, not least of which are some stubbornly static polling numbers. Despite governing in buoyant economic times, Harper has failed to consistently build on the popular vote that won him his minority. Ipsos Reid showed the Tories
spiking up to 40 per cent after last month’s budget, temptingly near majority territory. Then last week the same firm tracked the Tories slipping back to 36 per cent, with the Liberals at 31 per cent, almost exactly where both stood in the Jan. 23, 2006 vote.
But if both parties have work to do, it’s clear that Dion and the Liberals are playing catch-up. The Conservatives flexed their muscles last week by inviting media to tour a sprawling new campaign headquarters in an Ottawa industrial park. They can afford the real estate. Last year, the Tories raised almost $19 million, compared to $11 million for the Liberals. To spend that war chest, Harper can rely on a battle-hardened election team, largely intact after the 2004 and 2006 campaigns. Dion has cobbled together an election crew from his own leadership backers and key players from the camps he vanquished. That’s good for party unity, but raises doubts about campaign cohesion.
Meanwhile, his untested party apparatus must work flat out on two tracks, election preparation and party modernization. “We’re slowly moving now to a national membership registry,” says Senator Marie Poulin, who was elected Liberal president when Dion became leader. “Our goal is to have it finalized in about a year.” She blames Dion’s uneven start to 2007 on all the simultaneous change in the party. “We were going through a number of transitions,” Poulin says. “A new leader, a new president, a new national executive, a shift from one constitution to another, all while Parliament was sitting.”
She argues the bumpy patch is over and Dion has hit his stride. There’s no question he has been far more assertive in recent weeks,
delivering a series of big speeches, on policy files from law and order to climate change. But that’s the view from Ottawa. Closer to the ground, Liberal problems can look acute. Take British Columbia, where the party now holds eight seats to the Tories’ 18. Local Liberal organizers say they are changing their ways, becoming more like the Conservatives, who have out-fundraised them in B.C. since at least 2003. Gone are the days when there would be just a couple of big Liberal events a year, like a $2,500 per table Paul Martin fundraiser in Vancouver. On are church basement spaghetti dinners and suburban cake auctions, events that might net just $500 in total.
sort change is a long process, though, and it hasn’t helped Liberal popularity with voters thus far. In a poll last month by the Vancouver firm Mustel Group, Tory support had climbed to 40 per cent in the province, up from 35 in January, while Liberal support dropped by five per cent, to 29 per cent. Vancouver political analyst Bill Tieleman says the Liberals stand to lose half their B.C. seats if Harper catches a wave during a campaign. He thinks Dion’s accent when he speaks English is a significant problem across the West. When it comes to language,
there’s a big difference between Dion, with his professorial delivery and demanding vocabulary, andjean Chretien’s rough-hewn rhetoric. “People said, T don’t understand what Chrétien said, but I get what he meant,’ ” said Tieleman. “But with Dion, people don’t even understand what he means.”
In Quebec, Dion’s critics once thought he was understood all too well. His detractors predicted that after assuming the role of archfederalist and one-man plague on separatists under Chrétien, Dion’s image problem at home was beyond salvaging. But his positive approval ratings in Quebec since he won the Liberal leadership have proven them wrong. “I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever that he can connect with people in Quebec,” says pollster Bruce Anderson of Decima Research. “He speaks the language eloquently. He has an understanding of the place.”
But if Dion has shown he can’t be counted out in Quebec, the Tories look increasingly formidable there. Harper secured a beachhead of 10 seats in the last election, and now has those ADQ allies to help. Last week, he served notice that the fight is on by unleashing a French-only TV attack ad against Dion in Quebec only. The federal Liberal president in Quebec, Robert Fragasso, insists the Tory resurgence is not a bad thing at all. He touts the prospect of debate on issues other than federalism against sovereignty. “What’s going to be interesting in the next election is that we will have battles between Conservatives and Liberals. It will be a fight between federalists,” says Fragasso, who supported Michael Ignatieff over Dion in the Liberal leadership race. “That makes us ecstatic because we know that Quebecers aren’t conservatives at heart. Sending 12-year-old kids to jail doesn’t really resonate here.”
But independent experts see at least a possible link between the provincial outcome and the next federal race. “The ADQ and the Conservatives are going after the same votes,” says Université de Montréal political scientist professor Pierre Martin. “Many of Mario Dumont’s candidates who won last week show that there is a conservative sentiment in the province,” says Antonia Maioni, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, although she adds that the federal Tories aren’t assured of picking up all that ADQ support.
Still, Liberals hope a shift away from the federalist-sovereigntist polarization will make any residual burden Dion carries from his old days as Chretien’s designated separatistfighter less relevant. “I know he wasn’t the most popular guy around the block, to be perfectly honest,” says Brigitte Legault, the party’s French-language vice-president. “He
has to be redefined as a leader and not as the Clarity Act guy. That’s his challenge.”
And not only in Quebec. What separates Dion from Harper is often the Prime Minister’s superior ability to define the moment, isolate an issue, and set the terms of debate. The difference is sometimes as stark as the contrast between a slogan and a statistic. When Harper launched his tough-on-crime package last year, the most quoted part of his speech was his rhyme, “If you do serious crime, you’re going to do serious time.” But when Dion counterpunched with his own justice platform last month, he tried to spotlight reassuring data. “We need to base our policy on facts, not fearmongering,” Dion lectured. “Between 1992
and 2004, the crime rate fell by 22 per cent, and the violent crime rate fell by 13 per cent.” It was a textbook example of what Dion’s followers like best about the detail-oriented academic-turned-politician, and of what leaves the unconverted wondering if he’s got what it takes. Harper has turned into a resolutely pragmatic politician, tacking always toward the centre, happier selling a narrow set of policies—a tax break for families with kids, say, or stiff mandatory sentences for gun offences— rather than any broad right-of-centre philosophy. Liberals argue that leaves Dion a big opening to reach out to voters who crave big ideas. “There’s a real will in the Liberal party to talk about a broader vision for the country,” says Mike Crawley, the party’s Ontario president. “You see the opposite from Conservatives. Harper picks and chooses little initiatives.”
Still, Crawley concedes that Dion must eventually settle on some initiatives of his own that distill his broad philosophy into policy promises voters can readily grasp. That sharpening of focus should come through a Liberal platform development process being spearheaded by two of Dion’s former leadership rivals, MP Scott Brison and one-time Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae. A key question is whether Dion will try to elbow his way back toward the centre with his platform, or continue to stake out the centre-left, where he seems to be rooted up to now with his combined emphasis on climate-change policy and on getting Canadian troops out of combat in Afghanistan when their mission runs out in 2009. Much of his attack on the recent Tory budget was just as clearly aimed at left-tilting voters. “This budget is unfair,” he told his MPs in a rousing speech. “It does nothing for students. It does nothing for the poor. It does nothing for Aboriginals. It does nothing for single working mothers trying to make ends meet.”
That’s solid material when it comes to rallying Liberals to fight Tories. But Conservatives would no doubt be happy to see
Dion continuing to court voters strongly motivated by environmental worries, qualms about the fighting in Afghanistan, and worries about economic and social justice. Harper will meanwhile be wooing parents who sort of like a tax credit worth up to $310 per kid, and also might favour a party that would legislate stiff minimum jail terms for criminals who use guns. Appealing to those middle-class voters
is the Tory project, and they think they can do it with precision-crafted policy and disciplined messaging. Harper flatteringly defines the Conservatives’ target voters as “hard-working people who didn’t have the time to stage protests or the money to hire lobbyists.”
The scary thing for Liberals is that ordinary Canadians might believe Harper sees them that way. In a February Ipsos Reid poll probing the leaders’ images, Harper was chosen as “someone who has values that are close to your own” by 37 per cent, way ahead of Dion’s 24 per cent. And while those key party support numbers have shown the Liberals staying within striking distance of the Tories, Harper outstrips Dion by far on leadership ratings. On a straightforward question of which party leader would make the best prime minister, Harper scored 46 per cent, nearly double Dion’s 25 per cent. It’s opinion surveys like these, not the more widely cited party horserace polls, that Tory strategists tend to refer to when they make the case for a spring election. They know their guy is ahead, for now, and might lift his party in a spring campaign against the less-well-prepared Liberals. The question is whether Harper has the nerve to test Dion as he emerges from an undeniably miserable winter into a spring of new possibility. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.