Liberal message becoming muddy

It's hard to understand where Dion wants to lead the country

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The worst aspect of the Liberal campaign is the breakdown of message discipline. This begins with the crafting of the message, and relies on the ability of the messenger to convey it.

Neither the message nor the messenger is getting through. It's because the message is incoherent and the messenger is incomprehensible.

But even worse, Stéphane Dion has a distressing tendency to wander off message.

Consider the Green Shift, the centrepiece of the Liberal campaign. Not only is it an environmental program, it's a social program. The problem is, it can't be explained in 30 seconds on a doorstep, much less in seven seconds in a soundbite. Trying to explain the green shift to voters is like trying to explain the FedEx Cup point system to golfers. The more it's explained the more confusing it sounds.

Nevertheless, it's the mountain where Dion has planted his flag, the hill he should be prepared to die on. But when he was asked by CTV's Bob Fife the other day why he wasn't talking about the central plank in his platform, Dion replied that he never said it was, the media did.

Stephen Harper gleefully piled on at his next campaign stop, saying that Dion not talking about the Green Shift was like Tim Horton's without doughnuts. But then on Monday, when the Liberals released their platform, the online version of it referred to the Green Shift as "the cornerstone" of their campaign.

Dion has also been sending conflicting messages on a fundamental issue - his concept of federalism and his vision of Canada.

On the first day of the campaign, Dion said in French he was as much a Quebec nationalist as Gilles Duceppe. Then he went on to say in English he'd gone into politics for the unity of the country.

Dion is a candy mint. Dion is a breath mint. Two mints in one.

Then in an interview in La Presse on Monday, he said, "I'm a Quebec nationalist." And he elaborated: "We don't have to make a choice between Quebec nationalism and Canada. The real question is, what can Quebec nationalism bring to Canada?"

What brought this on? Apparently, it was Dion's annoyance with Harper for playing the nationalist card himself in his swing through rural Quebec last week. "He can't name me a single federal power he's ceded to the provinces," Dion said.

What was he trying to say here? It's challenging to explain. But in terms of big-picture federalism, Dion seems to be saying he's a classical federalist, that is to say one who respects the division of federal and provincial powers in the constitution. His record as intergovernmental-affairs minister in the Chrétien government supports that. He has been never been anything but very respectful of the division of powers, which makes his brand of federalism very unusual in the Liberal Party, which has for nearly half a century advocated using the federal spending power to occupy provincial jurisdiction on everything from health care under Lester Pearson to cities under Paul Martin.

But Dion has also a reputation, in both French- and English-speaking Canada, for drawing a line in the sand with the Clarity Act. That was a decade ago, in another century, but it is central to Dion's personal brand.

Now he's suggesting, for at least the second time in the campaign, that he's a Quebec nationalist. This simply runs against the grain of everything Quebecers have been told about Dion in the last decade. He can't compete with Duceppe in those terms, and he shouldn't try. And he can't rebrand himself in the middle of a campaign, and it's foolish to try.

Again, in a pitch for the votes of the artistic constituency angered by Conservative cuts to cultural programs, Dion said in the context of CBC funding: "I challenge Stephen Harper to be honest with Canadians and admit that he dreams of closing the CBC."

There are two problems with this statement, For one thing, it's completely over the top. For another, it invites a reply in terms of institutional memory. It was actually a Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau who once threatened "to put the key in the door" of Radio-Canada. Furthermore, the previous Conservative government of Brian Mulroney actually increased the CBC's budget from $800 million to $1.1 billion. It was the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien that slashed CBC funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In other words, this is not a road any Liberal leader should be going down. But then, Dion is not any Liberal leader. He is, quite uniquely, marching to his own drum. It is not clear where he is leading the Liberals, but it is not to a good place.

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