Stéphane Dion's week started badly and just kept getting worse

Chrétien's book, caucus anger and Quebec defections are making leader's life a misery

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The Gazette, Friday, October 19, 2007

Stéphane Dion's really bad week started with a book - Jean Chrétien memoirs blasting his Liberal successors for failing to implement Kyoto and for redeploying Canadian troops in Afghanistan from Kabul to "the killing fields" of Kandahar.

At the very moment when Dion urgently needed Liberals to unite behind his leadership, on the eve of a new parliamentary session, Chrétien reopened the bitter party divisions between Paul Martin's camp and his own.

Never mind that when Chrétien agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, Canada had no plan for emissions reductions, or that emissions increased by about 25 per cent over 1990 levels during his decade in office to the end of 2003.

Never mind that Canadian troops were deployed to Afghanistan on Chrétien's watch as prime minister, without any helicopter lift capacity because of his decision to cancel the EH-101s on his first day in office in 1993.

That's all beside the point. As it happened, Dion was minister of the environment for 18 months in the Martin government from its re-election in 2004 to its defeat in 2006. Kyoto also didn't get done on Dion's watch.

As for how Canadian troops got to Kandahar in 2005, Dion was at the cabinet table when the redeployment was approved in 2005, and then in 2006 joined many former members of the Martin government in voting against the extension of the mission they had themselves authorized.

It was very inconvenient, and made for an extremely bad start to Dion's week.

Then on Tuesday, in the hours before the Throne Speech, the fragile unity of Liberals from Dion's own province of Quebec unravelled in the most public place in Ottawa - the lobby of the House of Commons.

First, Gatineau MP Marcel Proulx quit as Quebec lieutenant, then Dion couldn't get anyone in the House to take the job. Denis Coderre and Pablo Rodriguez both declined the honour. None of them, walking into the opposition lobby, made any attempt to gloss over the rupture with the leader.

Proulx made it very clear he wouldn't be the scapegoat for the Liberals' disastrous performance in last month's three Quebec by-elections. Coderre is the party's ablest organizer in Quebec, and Rodriguez is one of its biggest talkers. Both of them, leadership supporters of Michael Ignatieff, refused la main tendue, the outstretched hand, of Dion. He finally persuaded Céline Hervieux-Payette to be his Quebec No. 2, from the Senate. It's tough work, she admitted, but someone's gotta do it. She is not known for having friends in the House caucus.

Then, the Liberal Party director-general in Quebec, former MP Serge Marcil, announced he was quitting. Flat broke, the party might not be able to keep its Montreal office open.

And the party's own polls confirm they have fallen to single digits in voter support in most of Quebec outside Montreal.

All that bad news was out there even before the Throne Speech, while Dion was trying to make up his mind whether to prop up the government and avoid an election, or bring it down and force one.

At Wednesday's caucus meeting, dozens of Liberal MPs implored Dion not to trigger an election, in spite of his own apparent inclination to do so. After all, he had been underestimated in the leadership race, and if he could win the convention he could also win the country. And an election would unite the party at least for the duration of the campaign.

After four hours he pledged a responsible course but kept his decision for his Leaders' Day Address on the Throne Speech late Wednesday afternoon.

He took 45 minutes to say Canadians didn't want an election and he wouldn't force one. Then he offered a four-part amendment to the Throne Speech on Afghanistan, Kyoto, social programs and corporate tax cuts, knowing full well the NDP want our troops out of Afghanistan now, not in 2009 as Dion proposed, and that the socialists would never support tax breaks for corporate Canada.

When their own amendment is defeated on Monday, the Liberals will abstain on the main motion next Wednesday, allowing it to pass and the government to survive. This was all Dion's brilliant idea.

And it was as feeble as the rest of his speech.

In the auxiliary press gallery on Wednesday, former Outremont MP Jean Lapierre was discussing the chaos in Liberal ranks.

"You had a better seat down there," he was told.

"I find it more comfortable up here," he replied.

No kidding.

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