Dion is a leader without a base in his own province

The fallout from the sponsorship scandal lingers, but he's done little to move forward

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The Gazette, Saturday, March 29, 2008

At the end of his week from hell in Quebec, Stéphane Dion issued a ringing endorsement of his own leadership, and a stirring call to arms to his party.

"I am the leader and I don't want people to be undisciplined," he declared after meeting with officials of the Liberal Party's Quebec wing. "Our party comes back from far in Quebec. We have an enormous amount of work to do."

He went on: "In an election, a steely discipline is necessary to win."

When a leader has to remind his party that he's the leader, he's in a lot of trouble. When he has to issue a public demand to his own troops for party discipline, that's a very bad moment.

He's right about one thing, though. He's coming back from far in Quebec, "with an enormous amount of work to do."

It's impossible to imagine Pierre Trudeau or Jean Chrétien making such declarations. It's equally impossible to imagine either one of them in anything like the predicament in which Dion finds himself.

He is essentially a leader without a base in a province that has historically supported a native son at the federal level. You can look it up, under Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Chrétien, and add Mulroney for good measure. With unwavering support from their home province of Quebec, those five prime ministers have led this country for 57 years out of 140 since Confederation.

Paul Martin was in office for another 26 months, but Quebecers turned away from the Liberals in his two elections, reducing them to 21 seats in 2004 and an historic low of 13 seats in 2006. In fairness to Martin, he was carrying the baggage of the sponsorship scandal in both campaigns.

And in fairness to Dion, that's the situation he inherited at the Liberal leadership convention 16 months ago. But it's equally appropriate to point out he's done nothing to revive the party's fortunes since then. In last September's by-elections, a handpicked Dion candidate lost impressively to the NDP in Outremont. But the real story was in the two seats off the island of Montreal, in which the Liberals placed a distant third to both the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois.

In the authoritative CROP and Léger Marketing polls, the Liberals continue to run a bad third outside Montreal, and third among francophone voters. Any modest uptick in the polls can be attributed largely to the bounce back of the Liberal brand under Jean Charest in Quebec. The party is broke. It is having trouble recruiting candidates. The leader is deeply unpopular in his own province.

And party functionaries and MPs are not bothering to conceal their dissatisfaction. They are not even troubling to hide behind anonymous or unattributed quotes.

Steve Pinkus, the party's English-language vice president for Quebec, called the Quebec wing "a dysfunctional family," and warned that the results of an election anytime soon would not be pretty. Liza Frulla, a former minister in the Martin government and now a prominent political commentator, had some equally unkind things to say. She's been touted as a candidate to succeed Martin in LaSalle-Émard. Then again, maybe not.

Raymonde Folco, the sitting MP for Laval-Les Iles, declared that Dion hadn't changed a bit since the by-election debacle, and that it was "time for him to show what he was made of." One disgruntled Liberal activist, someone named Pierre-Luc Bellerose, even suggested that, in the absence of a leadership review, the party should consider getting rid of Dion by revoking his membership card.

Wait, there's more. In La Presse on Thursday, deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was quoted as saying: "Stéphane Dion doesn't have the stature of a leader."

Later that same day, Iggy issued a furious clarification:

"I have worked tirelessly for our party and our leader and will continue to work with our strong Liberal team to ensure we win the next election," he declared. "No one has the right to call my loyalty into question."

Back in Ron Zeigler's time in the Nixon White House, this was known as a non-denial denial. Iggy didn't deny the quote, and La Presse pointedly stood by the story.

This is very corrosive stuff, and not just in Quebec.

The Liberal brand is strongest in Ontario, where there is always an echo effect back and forth across the Ottawa River. Quebecers like to vote for a winner. Ontarians like to vote for a party with good prospects in Quebec, so that they are electing a truly national government.

And what are Ontarians seeing? A leader who can't control his own party, in his own province. To say nothing of the fact that they have a hard time understanding what he says.

This is very bad stuff. Fortunately for Dion, the House is resuming, and he can return to the attack in question period.

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