Liberal bad blood

Lapierre's resignation shows the tension in party ranks

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The Gazette, Monday, January 15, 2007

The manner of Jean Lapierre's resigning his seat in Parliament by month's end, rather than waiting until the next election, is a classic settling of accounts with Liberal leader Stephane Dion.

Lapierre is walking through a revolving door to resume his career as a radio-and-television commentator, a role that creates a direct conflict of interest with his current job as an MP and sitting member of the Liberal caucus. But this isn't an opportunity that he couldn't have passed up for, say, one more session of the House. In the Quebec political media, he's a household name. It's not as if he wouldn't be in demand in six months.

But there's a back story, and a history, between Lapierre and Dion. And it isn't pretty.

When Paul Martin became prime minister in December 2003, one of the names conspicuously missing on his cabinet list was Dion's.

After serving seven years as minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Dion was unceremoniously dumped by Martin. As the father of the Clarity Act, Dion was an inconvenient man, a perceived hardliner who didn't resonate or reflect Martin's message of a more open-minded federalism in Quebec, personified by his Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, who quit the Liberals in 1990 over the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and became a founding member of the Bloc Quebecois.

Not only was Dion dumped, the party organization tried to ditch him. As the sitting member from St. Laurent, one of the safest Liberal seats in the country, he had to endure the humiliation of a contested nomination meeting for the 2004 election.

Lapierre and Liberal headquarters kept him out of sight for the first four weeks of the campaign, which were all down hill. With the Bloc Quebecois nudging 50 per cent in the polls, with the Conservatives in double digits, the Liberals were headed for winning no more than a dozen seats in Quebec.

Desperate to save the furniture, they finally found a way in the final week of the campaign - by successfully playing the unity card. "A vote for the Bloc is a vote for sovereignty," the Liberals proclaimed. And the messenger - Stephane Dion, gamely being a team player, appearing with Lapierre.

The unity card repolarized the election, allowed the Liberals to grow five points to 33 per cent in Quebec, while the Conservatives shrank back into single digits. While the resulting harvest of Liberals ridings, 21 seats, was of the party's worst ever, it was a darn sight better than they would have done if Dion hadn't helped them out.

Then when the Martin Liberals did post the worst Liberal score in history, 13 Quebec seats in 2006, Lapierre's power in the party evaporated overnight.

Dion, to the great surprise of the boys downtown, began telling people he was interested in running for the Liberal leadership. Hardly any of the party grandees, certainly not Lapierre, took him seriously.

Dismissed in the beginning as a second-tier candidate, and a one-trick pony on the environment, Dion emerged over last summer as a serious contender, though his support grew more in the rest of the country, where the Clarity Act was just as popular as it was unpopular in Quebec.

Dion should have finished fourth on the first ballot at the Montreal convention, and if he had that would have been the end of his leadership hopes. But when six of Gerard Kennedy's delegates parked their votes with Martha Hall Findlay to reward her for a great speech, Kennedy finished fourth instead of third. And when Hall Findlay went to Dion rather than Bob Rae, that created enough separation between Dion and Kennedy to kick in their deal after the second ballot.

Faced with a choice between an expatriate (Michael Ignatieff), and a stranger (Rae), the Liberals chose the third man, Dion. And that was a very bad moment for Lapierre. In the world of don't get mad, get even, there would be no leading role for him in a Dion shadow cabinet.

But Lapierre also controlled the timing of his departure, and here's where his little bit of revenge played out. In all the buzz last week about Justin Trudeau running for the Liberal nomination in Outremont, Dion was able to restrain his enthusiasm for the notion. So was the local riding executive. Name recognition is one thing, but it's not the same as having a fully developed political resume.

Stephen Harper could put Dion on the spot on this matter by calling a quick by-election after Lapierre vacates the seat. The Conservatives don't have a hope of winning there, and would do well not to lose their deposit. But they could have some fun at the expense of a divided Liberal family.

Whenever the next election comes, there will be at least two, and perhaps as many as four, open Liberal seats in the centre of Montreal - all of them quite safe. Paul Martin is retiring in LaSalle-Emard, Lucienne Robillard is reportedly stepping down in Westmount-St. Henri and Irwin Cotler is thought to be reflecting on his future in Mount Royal, which, come to think of it, is Trudeau's father's old seat.

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