It may be the boldest policy move since free trade. But is Stéphane Dion the man to sell it?

JOHN GEDDES September 29 2008


It may be the boldest policy move since free trade. But is Stéphane Dion the man to sell it?

JOHN GEDDES September 29 2008


It may be the boldest policy move since free trade. But is Stéphane Dion the man to sell it?


The real action around Stéphane Dion’s campaign is all happening at the back of the room. The man at the front is no real mystery, although Liberals complain that their adversaries have cynically misrepresented him. Anyone paying even a modicum of attention knows at least this much:

Dion is a former professor, a battle-scarred defender of federalism in Quebec, and now the champion, above all else, of an audacious climate-change policy. He hopes his big idea—blended with a pitch that the Liberals who once slayed the deficit are again the country’s best bet for scary economic times—will gradually win over enough voters to make him Canada’s 23rd prime minster.

Filling the middle of the room are throngs of party faithful. Whether third-generation Grits forking down pancakes in Saint John, N.B., say, or first-generation Chinese Can-


adians sipping tea in Richmond, B.C., they have this much in common: their votes are sewn up. Moving among them, but especially cruising the sides of the room, or obsessively BlackBerrying in the hallways around it, are the party pros, worried veteran Liberal campaigners mixed with determined, diehard Dionistas. Finally, there’s the media, a separate subculture, skeptical of Dion’s chances, clustered wherever space for their tripods or a plug-in for their digital recorders has been provided.

But sprinkled toward the rear— by a pillar, maybe, or against the wall between the doorways—stand a few stray individuals whose opinions are truly in play. They aren’t on the local riding association’s list, so they didn’t get a seat at the table. They aren’t wearing a Liberal button, or joining in the Di-on, Di-on chants, but they are engaged enough to show up. They’re the closest thing in the room to proxies for that prized polling category: the undecideds. If Dion can’t win them over with his big idea, he can’t win at all.

So sidle up to Rich Sancton, a semi-retired physicist, working these days on the refurbishing of the Point Lepreau nuclear gener-

ating station near Saint John, who stood through Dion’s pancake-breakfast speech. “As I suspected,” Sancton concludes when the cheering dies down, “he’s much more impressive in person.” Score one for Dion in his struggle to overcome the Tories’ caricature of him as an indecisive milquetoast.

Or steal a moment with Terence Tam, a 28year-old banker, who brings a coolly critical attitude to Dion’s luncheon speech for mostly Chinese Canadians at Richmond’s Shiang Garden restaurant. Before making up his mind, Tam wants to hear more about Dion’s centrepiece plan for cutting income taxes and shifting the tax burden to fossil fuels. “We used to think the Conservatives were not good for the people,” he says, “but obviously they are doing a reasonable job. They are more moderate than we thought.” Tam’s prediction: “If there is something wrong with the Green Shift, we switch to them.” Good news for Harper’s bid to coax traditionally Liberal immigrant voters over to the Tories.

Reaching those undecideds at the back of the room is proving difficult for Dion. Even his most fervent backers don’t claim he’s a born campaigner. His style is unusually reticent for a politician, as his reaction to his first significant score of the campaign showed.


When Harper and the NDP’s Jack Layton reversed themselves to allow Green Leader Elizabeth May into the televised debates, Dion chose not to rub it in much. Even though he was the only party leader who had wanted May in all along, he took only the mildest jab at Harper and Layton for “backtracking,” before declaring it “a good day for women and for democracy.”

Imagine how Harper or Layton would have laid it on if either found themselves alone on the right side of the big story of the day. But that’s Dion. It’s not that he’s impassive—when Harper claimed the Green Shift might spark a resurgence of Quebec separatism, a visibly furious Dion all but spat as he declared that didn’t need “any lessons from Stephen Harper on fighting for the national unity of my country.” It’s just that when emotion doesn’t rise naturally in him, he hasn’t got the politician’s knack for working it up on cue. For long stretches of campaigning, Dion settles into professorial mode. He’s at his relaxed best in a classroom or town hall setting, fielding policy questions at length, the more arcane the better.

The Conservatives have turned that trait against him, depicting Dion as an “elitist professor.” He calls this the “shadow opponent” that Harper has conjured up to run against. “I am anything but snobbish,” Dion said, not disguising his frustration, in an interview with Maclean’s on his campaign plane. “My real home is not so much Montreal, it’s the high Laurentians with all the mosquitoes. I have friends in every milieu you may imagine.”

He volunteers, as an example of how he doesn’t fit the ivory tower stereotype, his sensibility toward guns. Even though he went to Montreal’s Dawson College, site of a deadly shooting two years ago, to call for a ban on military-style assault weapons, Dion asserts that he’s perfectly comfortable around hunting rifles. “I don’t hunt, I fish, but I have lots

of friends who are hunters,” he says. “I know a good hunter is the best ally of wildlife. He wants to pass this gift of Mother Nature on to his children.”

This is, of course, in keeping with his party’s bid to highlight his woodsy, snowshoeing, winter-loving side, as featured in a Liberal website designed to recast his image. Still, the Dion who shows up most days on the hustings seems less like the angler who reeled in the biggest pike on the lake last summer, and more like the Paris-educated Ph.D. who taught public administration and political science at the Université de Montréal from 1984 to 1996. If he’s going go win over those swing voters at the back of the hall, it’s not going to be because they decide he’s a regular guy. It’s going to be because they conclude he’s the smartest guy on the ballot, and that his Green Shift is not some wild scheme but is perfectly in keeping with his professed brand of fiscally prudent Liberalism, in the mode of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. And that all that makes him safe enough for a stint in 24 Sussex Dr.

If this remains largely a contest of leaders’ props—Harper’s sweater vest and piano vs. Dion’s cross-country skis and windproof outerwear—the incumbent will win. Easier for voters to stick with the focus-group-tested persona they know. But Dion would stand a fighting chance in a battle of pure policy and party brands. So he’s trying to turn stockmarket turmoil and economic unease into a reminder that, not so long ago, Liberals were presiding over big federal surpluses and sustained prosperity. He craves a crystallizing moment, perhaps in the Oct. 1-2 televised debates, when his policies and Harper’s, especially on climate change, are sharply contrasted. “I would like to see a new Mr. Harper coming and saying, ‘I’ve done my homework, I know why I don’t like the Liberal plan,’ ” he says. “Then I would love this debate.”

Make no mistake about whose campaign Dion is waging: it’s all his. Liberal officials say he micromanages tactics, from which TV ads air (he has dialled back attacks), to what phrases make it into his stump speeches (he’s been known to grab the laptop from one of his two main writers, and tap out new text himself). More than anything, his Green Shift—arguably bolder than any platform since Brian Mulroney’s 1988 free trade plandefines his personal sense of mission, as much as it does his party’s policy.

Dion proposes more than $15 billion in new taxes aimed at putting a $42 per tonne price on global warming-causing carbon emissions, most notably from burning coal to produce electricity. The “shift” part of the plan would give back an equal $15 billion to taxpayers, in personal income tax cuts, enhanced benefits for lower-income earners, a sizable corporate tax cut, and new credits and deductions for rural and northern residents.

Just before Dion unveiled details of his carbon tax last June, Harper launched a preemptive strike by denouncing it as “insane.” That set the tone for Tory derision of the plan. Like it or not, though, it is plainly not crazy. As Dion often mentions, carbon taxes are in place in other well-governed countries, including Sweden, and mainstream Canadian experts support the concept, like Jack Mintz, a business-friendly tax guru and professor at Harper’s own alma mater, the University of Calgary. The Green Shift is, however, complicated in its details. Like Dion himself, the carbon tax is hard to warm up to, but those who frilly buy in tend to become tenaciously devoted.

Still, even many loyal Liberals can’t work up much real enthusiasm about it. David Rogers, a Saint John lawyer and a Liberal activist since his teens, compares it to the harmonized sales tax, or HST, the unique Maritime blend of the GST and provincial sales taxes. “The way I look at the Green Shift,”

Rogers says, “is that none of us here were all that in favour of the HST—I’m still not much in favour of it—but we came to live with it.” In other words, eat your vegetables. Not exactly a rousing slogan. Yet Rogers suggests the problem is not an unsaleable policy, so much as Dion’s low-key salesmanship. “He’s got to let people know that he’s a factor to be dealt with in this country,” he urges.

Up close Dion does convey a sort of slowburning intensity when he talks about the Green Shift. What gets him most fired up is talking about how a policy that starts out as way to cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions will, if it succeeds, turn into a catalyst for prosperity. Burning fossil fuels is, he contends, not only bad for the environment, it’s getting too expensive. Time to spur Canadian households and companies to boost energy efficiency, explore renewable options, and get ahead of an inevitable move away from the old petroleum-based economy. “Energy efficiency,” Dion says, “is the way to be competitive in a world where cheap oil is passing.”

Assume Dion is right in grasping an essential challenge of the early 21st century. He might still have chosen a bad moment to try to get voters to contemplate it, just as stock markets roil and the central Canadian manufacturing sector, in particular, undergoes a



Early days Son of scholar Léon Dion, and Denyse (née Kormann), a Paris-born realtor, Stéphane Dion grew up in the affluent Quebec City suburb of Sillery.

School days Dion dabbled in sovereignty as a teenager while attending a Jesuit college in Quebec City—mainly so he could challenge his federalist father.

First job He briefly taught political science at the Université de Moncton before moving to the Université de Montréal in 1984.

Getting married He met his wife, Janine Krieber, while completing an M.A. at Université Laval. Together, they enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris, and moved to Montmartre, where they were “penniless, living on pasta.”

Likes/dislikes Dion’s favourite singer is Belgian singer Jacques Brel, whose throaty rolled Rs are reminiscent of Edith Piaf. His favourite film is the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia.

painful contraction. But Dion insists this is precisely the right time to consider how environmental foresight is the right strategic choice, particularly for Ontario’s troubled

auto sector. “If we had had the Green Shift 20 years ago,” he says, “I think we would be building the cars of tomorrow in Canada, not the cars of yesterday.”

Some worried Liberal party insiders—staggered by early polls showing Dion failing to break through and Harper cresting toward majority territory—are already muttering about the need to take their campaign’s focus away from the Green Shift. It’s not just that the broad thrust of the policy is tough to get across. Some of those listeners at the back of the room are still worried it might raise the price of gas at the pumps. (It wouldn’t, since Dion’s plan would fold the existing federal tax on gas into the new carbon tax.) But other Liberals contend that continuing to stress the Green Shift is the only way to contrast Dion, conviction politician, against Harper, former ideologue, now born-again opportunist. According to this view, Dion only began to hint at his full potential as a leader when he embraced the carbon tax as his defining quest.

The story goes like this. Dion entered politics, invited to Ottawa by jean Chrétien after the near catastrophe of the 1995 referendum in Quebec, to defend federalism in his home province. He weathered vicious attacks from the sovereignists, and finally pushed through


the Clarity Act against unrelenting opposition, setting clear rules for any future vote on separation. When Paul Martin lost the 2006 election, Dion emerged as a dark-horse candidate to succeed him. Thanks to a mutualsupport pact with another long shot, Gerard Kennedy, he came from behind at a thrilling convention in Montreal, winning in an upset victory over leading contenders Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.

But Dion failed to convert that convention magic, or trade on his hard-won reputation as a gutsy patriot, into early traction as leader. Instead, the Tories moved quickly with attack ads, casting him as a perpetually shrugging non-leader who finds setting priorities too

hard, They scored what will go down as one of the most glorious—if that’s the word for it—victories for negative advertising in Canadian political history.

Even Liberals who remain firmly behind Dion tend to view those early-2007 ads as the beginning of a debilitating image problem he’s still struggling to overcome on the hustings. “He is a deeply misunderstood man,” said one senior party organizer, after polls showed the Liberals far back of the Tories at the end of the campaign’s first week.

Among insiders, including many Liberal MPs, Dion’s reputation for toughness has been somewhat restored in recent months. After losing Montreal’s Outremont riding in a by-election, Dion quickly brought in Johanne Senecal, a veteran operative from the Chrétien years, first as his principal secretary, and then chief of staff. He rehabilitated Senator David Smith, an Ontario Liberal campaign

warhorse and icon of stability in the party, naming him a campaign co-chair.

Having revamped his team, all Dion needed was a purpose. He found it when influential voices inside the party, notably MPs Scott Brison and John Godfrey, who has since retired from politics, urged him to consider a carbon tax, a concept Dion had previously rejected. In March, he endorsed the idea in a turning-point speech in Vancouver. On June 19, he unveiled a detailed policy in Ottawa. The big announcement came just after Dion had rejected pleas— from Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and many others—to force an early summer election.

As much as the new policy, the way Dion stared down those powerful forces shored him up. It happened in a crucial meeting of the party’s planning and priorities committee, held in Parliament’s East Block, a glowering gothic edifice once described by diplomat and diarist Charles Ritchie as ‘a standing rebuke to progress.” Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay, one of Dion’s former leadership rivals, says he displayed steely resolve in that meeting. “Stéphane very calmly said, T appreciate your input, but I’ve made my decision,’ ” she says, recalling a sense in the room that even those


who disagreed with him were impressed.

If Dion won back some of the respect he earned as the minister behind the Clarity Act, some Liberals still wondered if he was too policy-oriented to win. Yet during this campaign, he can be surprisingly candid about making purely political calculations. For instance, he talks about two early campaign promises—the assault weapons ban and a pledge to step up food inspection in the wake of the recent deaths from tainted prepared meat—as wedge issues designed to grab media attention. “In order to have some coverage on a policy,” Dion says, “you need to create politics around it.”

As well, Dion’s smouldering disdain for both Harper and Layton is perhaps surprising from the supposedly mild-mannered professor. Dion makes a point in public of insisting that he doesn’t question Harper’s

sincerity. Yet in his Maclean’s interview, he did just that. “I’m sure he knows that cutting the GST was bad policy,” Dion says. “But he thought to win the [2006] election, because the people are who they are, you have to come with these simplistic things.”

Again in this race, he accuses Harper of pandering. “I’m sure he knows that cutting two cents off the tax on diesel is a stupid thing to do,” Dion says. “But at the same time, it’s the way to buy the vote of the people, because the people are like this, you know?” As for himself, Dion says he trusts voters to absorb even as far-reaching a policy thrust as his Green Shift. “It’s true that I am an intellectual,” he says. “But I am close to the people.

1 take the time to explain what I am thinking. And he comes with gimmicks, he insults the people with low-blow attack ads. Who is showing respect for the people?”

Dion is at least as dismissive of Layton. Asked if vote-splitting among the Liberals, NDP and Greens will someday force left-ofcentre parties to join forces, he rejects building bridges to a federal NDP that “has no discipline.” He mocks Layton’s big $8-billion four-year campaign promise to save the manufacturing sector as recklessly expensive. “It’s $8 billion just like this,” Dion scoffs. “It’s, ‘the corporations will pay.’ ”

And this gives him the opening he’s been waiting for to tout his Liberals as economic and fiscal managers. He lays claim not only to Martin’s deficit-defeating legacy, but to probusiness Grit instincts stretching back to William Lyon Mackenzie King. “Traditionally, the Liberal party has 10 spenders that have a big heart, and one centre-right-wing guy who cares about the economy,” Dion says. “And this person is powerful in the government.”

With stock markets rattled and the economy fragile, Dion is trying to marry his reassurances about sound economic stewardship to his Green Shift pitch. At the same time, he’s striving to make Harper wear the current downturn, and drive home the point that Ottawa’s finances are more precarious after

2 Vi years of Tory rule than they were following 13 years under the Liberals.

He’s asking voters to meld together two rather dissimilar reasons for voting for him: bet on the carbon tax for the long term, but hedge by trusting Liberal realism for the short term. He’s asking them to see him as a visionary on the environment, and a pragmatist on the economy. At the back of the room, those undecided listeners are straining to sort out the two-pronged message, to give this scrappy professor his due. With the polls tilted against him, though, Dion has to hope they represent enough undecided voters, out there still waiting to be persuaded, for him to pull off his biggest upset yet. M