Mood swings hurt Dion's credibility

The Liberal leader's threats to defeat the government are wearing thin

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This just in: Stéphane Dion threatens not to bring down the government over the budget.

First he brandished the possibility of defeating the government on next week's budget, even though he hadn't seen it yet.

Then, on Monday in Quebec City, Dion climbed down, saying the Liberals would allow the budget to pass in the March 4 vote provided it's "not too harmful" for the economy.

"It won't be a Liberal budget," Dion allowed. "Unfortunately the ideas I have put forward won't be in the budget. But we also have to respect the decision of the voters in 2006.

"Therefore, if it's a budget that appears to us as being acceptable or at least not too harmful for the Canadian economy, we could let it pass and avoid $350 million in expenses for an election."

At first glance, Dion would appear to be coming to his senses, and climbing in from the ledge. Just because the media mob is yelling "jump" is no reason for him to do so.

But then, it's early days. There are two weeks left before the vote. Plenty of time for him to change his mind yet again.

Which is getting to be a problem for Dion. He has got to stop having these mood swings in public.

There is now an established pattern of Dion threatening to defeat the government, and then retreating in the face of opposition from the Liberal caucus, or his own advisers, or the apparent apathy of voters to an early election.

It began with the Throne Speech in October. No Canadian government has ever fallen on the Speech from the Throne, yet Dion threatened to make it a confidence issue, and then didn't. The Liberals abstained.

Then there was Afghanistan. Time and again, Dion drew a line in the sand: Canada's combat mission must end in February 2009.

But then the Manley report recommended the mission be extended provided NATO stepped up with another 1,000 troops as reinforcements to our mission in Kandahar. John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, was recommending a quintessential Canadian compromise.

Stephen Harper accepted Manley's guidelines, and his government tabled a binding resolution - a matter of confidence that will be voted on at the end of March, before a NATO summit in April.

The Liberals realized what they were facing - precipitating an election over Afghanistan, one in which they would be accused of abandoning Canada's troops on a mission on which the Liberals, in government, had sent them.

Dion had an opportunity to offer improvements when he met privately with Harper, but instead of getting back to the PM, he redrew his line in the sand after discussing it with his caucus.

Then Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, his deputy leader and foreign affairs critic, worked out some compromise language about a "security" mission that was acceptable to Harper. But then, yet again, Dion returned to the charge in the House last week, demanding that Harper clarify the situation.

In the meantime, the Liberals were faced with the prospect of forcing an election over the budget as a means of avoiding one over Afghanistan. Dion had some advisers over to Stornoway last Tuesday, and told them he wanted to defeat the government on the budget. But then on Wednesday, one Liberal MP after another spoke out in caucus against an election. The Liberal campaign high command has plenty of reasons to avoid an election, starting with a serious shortage of money compared to the Conservatives, who raised four times as much as the Grits last year. The Liberal debate prep team has also been working with Dion and their sense is that, despite his improving English, he isn't quite ready for a two-hour debate in English, one that could be the defining moment of a campaign.

Yet Jean Chrétien, who won three consecutive Liberal majorities, reportedly advised Dion to pull the election trigger, partly because this constant vacillation was hurting him.

So Dion goes back and forth on this. It all depends on what day of the week it is. Or the last person he spoke to. Or his own sense that just as he won the Liberal convention as a dark horse, so he can take the country by surprise, if not by storm, in an election.

All of which is playing right to the tag line of the Conservative attack ad: Stéphane Dion - not a leader.

What Dion should be saying is that the Liberals will bring down the government, at a moment, and on an issue, of their choosing. Right now, he's playing a game he can't win.

 
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