Dion's dilemma

Liberal leader needs time to raise money and rebuild party

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When the House resumes after the March break next week, Stéphane Dion will once again be faced with a barrage of questions about whether he intends to bring down the Conservative government anytime soon.

He has two answers. He can equivocate about pulling the trigger at a time of his choosing, meaning on any of the opposition days when he can propose a motion amounting to confidence. Or he can just say no.

The first keeps the option of a spring election open to him, provided the other opposition parties join with the Liberals to defeat the government. The second buys him something he needs, a thing called time.

The problem for Dion in threatening to topple the government is that he does it so often he sounds like the Big Bad Wolf - a blowhard. If he goes down this road again, he had better be prepared to follow through, and HE better be sure he has the votes, including those of his own caucus.

He would need an issue, or a pretext, to unite the NDP and Bloc Québécois behind the Liberals (or allow the NDP to propose a motion the Libs and Bloc could support).

Climate change could be one. The question of the government's integrity, and particularly Stephen Harper's in the Cadman affair, is another possibility. But these are both stretches. The environment isn't the ballot question it was a year ago, precisely because the government now has a plan. You might not like it, but it is a plan. And the idea of going to the people on whether the Conservatives offered a dead man inducements to change his vote, in another confidence motion in 2005, is not on any list of voter concerns.

But here are some good reason for Dion to announce pre-emptively next week that the Liberals won't defeat the government this spring.

First, he would look like a responsible leader, putting the national interest above partisan opportunism, by pledging to make the House work through the spring sitting and avoid an election the voters don't want.

Second, he would have an opportunity in the House to showcase his newly arrived star MPs, Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay, as a part of a new, improved Liberal team. Rae and the deputy Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, will presumably be Dion's wingers, sitting on either side of him in the House. They will be bidding to outshine each other, and will certainly outshine the leader. There's no getting around it - Dion is awful in question period, but a stronger cast around him will reinforce the case for the Liberal team.

Third, it would get him to the summer, and there's a bunch of things Dion can do then. The House normally rises in mid-June, and comes back only in late September, a recess of 13 weeks. That's an entire quarter of a year, time enough for Dion to get his arms around a few pressing challenges.

For one thing, he can use the summer to improve his retail skills, which greatly need improving. To put it charitably, he is not a natural. But to be fair, he is game to try. And every time I'm inclined to say he's hopeless, I remember the photo of Stephen Harper in the cowboy outfit, with the hat on backward. The picture, from his summer tour of 2005, was so ridiculous I thought it might be the end of him. Six months later, he was prime minister.

For another, Dion can use the time to raise money for the party and to pay down the debt of his own leadership campaign. Both are serious matters. The Conservatives are raising four times as much money as the Liberals, a party that has yet to adapt to the strict new rules of campaign financing, and that apparently doesn't know how to raise money on the Internet. And Dion's own leadership campaign, from December 2006, still has a debt of $850,000 in March 2008. Dion is personally responsible for this, and he would do well to pay it down before an election. If he doesn't, no one will give him five cents in the event he loses.

Moreover, Dion could then use the next six months to stop the bickering and bitching over his leadership within the Liberal Party. The banner headline in yesterday's Globe and Mail, "Dion facing revolt in Quebec ranks," could be attributed largely to disgruntled Iggy supporters, and the story ran in a very slow news week.

But it wasn't fundamentally wrong. The party is broke in Quebec. There's no plan for a campaign. The infighting among organizers is ugly, like Tories in the bad old days. And the Liberals are completely out of the game in the 50 Quebec seats outside Montreal.

Time is Dion's best friend, perhaps his only friend, in this.

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