Dion is the big loser in by-elections

His failure to regain francophone support for the Liberals means the knives will be out for the novice leader

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The NDP are like the Red Sox - they can't believe they're ever going to beat the Yankees.

Well, believe it. The NDP beating the Liberals in Outremont on Monday was like winning at Yankee Stadium.

Outremont is hallowed ground, home to successive generations of Liberal Quebec lieutenants. Until Monday, the riding returned a Liberal in every election but one going back to 1935.

On Monday, the Yankees didn't just lose at home. They got pounded. The NDP didn't win on a recount in extra innings. There was no nervy ninth. It was a blowout.

The NDP's Tom Mulcair, favoured by seven points in a weekend poll going into the by-election, won by a huge margin of 21 points, 49 to 28 per cent over the Liberals' Jocelyn Coulon. Talk about covering the spread.

In such circumstances, we know what the Yankees would do. George Steinbrenner would fire the manager.

The Liberals can't fire Stéphane Dion. They're stuck with him until the next election. There is no leadership review process in this party between elections.There is no mechanism for getting rid of him.

Instead, Dion might be condemned to suffer a political death of a thousand cuts. The bitching and backbiting that was already going on behind the scenes will now break out into the open.

This is what happens when a guy who finishes third on the first ballot of a leadership convention finishes first on the last one. There are always two guys ahead who think they should have won - in this case, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Not to mention Gerard Kennedy, who would have been the third man if six of his delegates hadn't parked with Martha Hall Findlay at the Liberal convention, thereby leaving him two votes behind Dion in fourth place.

In other words, Dion's hold on the leadership has been tenuous from the beginning. The Liberals turned to him as a known quantity in preference to the stranger and the foreigner, Bob and Iggy.

To strengthen his grip on the leadership, Dion had to do three things. First, perform well in the House and in the country. Second, unite the party behind an agenda for recapturing government (other than articulating Liberal rule by divine right). And third, rebuild the Liberal brand in Quebec.

So far, Dion has failed on all three counts. In the House, he's been a flop. On a new Liberal agenda, he has steered the party to the left to counter the threat from the NDP and the Greens, but in the process has vacated the centre to the Conservatives. And in Quebec, in his first test on Monday, his team got killed.

The owners can't fire the manager, but there's no one else to blame.

In Outremont, he chose Coulon as his starter over such other available talent as Justin Trudeau and Marc Garneau. Could Trudeau, or Garneau, the former astronaut, have done better? Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But either one would have started with name recognition. And neither one would have had to spend weeks explaining their commentaries on the Middle East to the Jewish community, a core Liberal constituency that turned to the NDP and Conservatives on Monday. The NDP won four out of every five polls on Monday, some of them by margins of three to one.

Mulcair was a good candidate. But he wasn't that good. The NDP started out trying to make Afghanistan and Kyoto the ballot question. But at the door, particularly among francophone voters, they found that Dion was increasingly the issue.

And in the two other ridings, Roberval-Lac-St-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, the Liberals failed to break out of single-digit percentages. This is the situation Dion inherited. Not only have the Liberals traded places with the Conservatives as the competitive federalist opponent of the Bloc, les rouges have been marginalized to fringe-party status. First, the Liberals killed Meech Lake. Then, they had the sponsorship scandal. Now, they are paying for both.

The point is that the rebuilding hasn't begun in the critical seats off the island of Montreal under Dion. A majority of francophone votes in those two ridings was won by a man from Calgary, with a message of open federalism and respect for Quebec. Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were the big winners on Monday.

And Gilles Duceppe took a hit. But the big loser was Dion. That's the way it goes in the majors. And some people just aren't ready for The Show.

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