Dion's dilemma: To pull the plug or not

The Liberals must decide whether to defeat government now or wait until the fall

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 30, 2008

To defeat the government or not to defeat it, that is the question for Stéphane Dion and the Liberals as they consider their prospects in a spring election against Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Dion seems to go back and forth on it, not because he's auditioning for the role of Hamlet so much as he's receiving conflicting advice and being buffeted by competing agendas within the Liberal Party.

Those urging caution on Dion include some of the wiser Liberal Party hands in his close circle of advisers. They've advanced a host of reasons for keeping this minority House going into the fall.

For one thing, the Liberals are scrambling for money, while the Conservatives are flush with cash, having raised four times as much in contributions as the Grits in 2007.

For another, most of the leading leadership candidates, including Dion, are still working off their debts from the 2006 leadership campaign. Dion himself has reported campaign debts of close to $850,000. It is hoped that someone has advised him that party donors would be in no hurry to pay down the debts of a leader who has just lost a general election.

By keeping the House alive until the fall, the Liberals would have the opportunity to hammer out a campaign platform, whereas they would be going into a spring election without one. Even a tour plan takes time to figure out. Improvisation is the mortal enemy of any leader's tour. Liberals with institutional memory can remind Dion of the time in the 1984 campaign when John Turner's plane left Ottawa without knowing where it would land on the West Coast.

Then, prolonging the life of this Parliament until the fall would give Dion another six months to work on improving his English, and another summer sharpening his retail game on the barbecue circuit. The good thing about a summer on the road is that it's spent largely out of view of the national media. It's generally forgotten today that Stephen Harper was all but written off, an object of widespread ridicule, when he went on tour in the summer of 2005. When he returned, he had gained confidence and acquired a touch that made a significant difference in the campaign that began a few months later.

Furthermore, there are the four St. Patrick's Day by-elections on March 17, and Dion could use a little luck of the Irish. Having been stomped in three Quebec by-elections last September, the Liberals are a lock to retain at least three of the four seats up for grabs, including two in Toronto and one in Vancouver, all in urban Liberal strongholds. Only the fourth, in northern Saskatchewan, is competitive.

One of the candidates in the March by-elections is Bob Rae, who will add some lustre to the Liberal front bench as the party's foreign-affairs critic. There is a timeless rule of party politics that if the leader's popularity is weak, surround him with a strong team.

There are several other reasons for keeping this House alive. The Mulroney-Schreiber affair is still dragging on before the House ethics committee, and will then move over to a public inquiry that will be up and running by summer. And then there's the economy, with the prospect of Canada's prosperity being sideswiped by the economic slowdown in the United States.

Among the Liberal election hawks are those who think they should get a defeat under Dion behind them, while holding the Conservatives to another minority, so they can get on with the business of rebuilding under another leader, likely Rae or Michael Ignatieff, neither of whom has renounced his leadership ambitions.

And then there are the polls, which vary from this week's Ipsos poll showing the Conservatives stuck in minority territory to the latest Decima online survey indicating the Liberals moving back to slight lead over the Tories. One thing all the polls agree on: No one is near majority territory.

There are two looming opportunities for the Liberals to defeat the government, if Dion decides to go for a spring election. The first, obviously, is next month's budget. Both the NDP and the Bloc will be voting against it, and Dion will have a decision to make.

And then there's Afghanistan, if Harper, as now seems likely, presents a binding resolution on the Manley panel's recommendation to extend the mission in Afghanistan provided other NATO forces step up and share the burden our troops are bearing in Kandahar.

Supporting such a motion would require Dion to put some water in his wine - his position has long been that Canada's "combat role" should end a year from now, while retaining the possibility of staying in the country in another role such as training Afghan forces, also recommended by the Manley panel.

It's for Dion to decide.

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