Dion like dinner

Liberal leader must choose whether to go out by the back door or front

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The Gazette, Sunday, October 19, 2008

When, not if, will Stéphane Dion resign as Liberal leader - that is the question. It's a matter of whether he leaves by the front door, under his own steam, or whether they carry him out the back.

That's the part he gets to decide, and the only part - whether he leaves with dignity, or not. And he has only this weekend to think about it. But whatever stages of grief remain for Dion over losing last week's election, he had better move beyond denial, and quickly, for his own sake as well as the party's.

How quickly? How would tomorrow afternoon suit him, down at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa?

Under the scenario of a dignified exit, there are several important things the Liberal Party could do for Dion. First, it can and should cover his $200,000 of personal debt remaining from the 2006 leadership convention. The new campaign finance laws limit donations to about $1,000 per person, and most Liberals are already maxed out for 2008. But it's not a big deal to get 200 cheques for $1,000, post-dated to the first of January, 2009. Provided Dion agrees to leave. Otherwise, he will be left to cover it himself, which is the sad point after leadership races where houses come in as collateral.

Second, Dion and the party need to agree on a timeline for his departure that works for him and the party. The Liberals have already scheduled a policy convention for Vancouver next spring, and they need to know two things: Whether a leadership review is on the agenda, or whether to transform the meeting into a leadership convention.

If Dion insists on going down the road to a leadership review, that's his right within the party's rules. If, as is more likely, he agrees to leave on his own, then it becomes a question of whether the party asks him to remain as leader in the House for the fall and spring sessions of the new Parliament.

Have they got a better idea? No one running for his job can be the acting leader, and that takes quite a few pretenders out of play, starting with Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. This would allow for an orderly rather than unruly succession, and enable Dion and his wife, Janine Krieber, to remain at Stornoway over Christmas and Easter, and give them a dignified transition back to living under their own roof. So they won't be moving to 24 Sussex. If they thought so, at any time during the campaign, they were delusional.

But rather than hanging on to the drapes at Stornoway, Dion should be looking ahead to the next stage of his life. He basically has two career choices - to remain in Parliament or return to academic life in Montreal. As an opposition MP, he would be a frontbencher, accorded a place of honour in the Liberal lineup, and would undoubtedly return as a senior minister if the next leader brings the party back to government. As a professor, he has tenure at Université de Montréal. And if he left Ottawa, after 12 years as an MP, 11 as a minister or opposition leader, his parliamentary pension would be in six figures.

Beyond that, Dion should have no illusions that the party owes him anything more than a dignified exit.

There is such a thing as a rendering of campaign accounts, and Dion ran a lousy campaign. By the numbers, it was the worst Liberal campaign ever.

Dion got 26 per cent of the vote, two percentage points lower than John Turner in 1984, in what until last week was the worst Liberal share of the popular vote since Confederation.

At 76 seats, the Liberals lost in every region of the country except the Maritimes, and even there they lost New Brunswick. They won only seven seats in the West, 38 in Ontario and 13 in Quebec - Dion's home province.

The Liberals lost 27 seats from their losing score in 2006, and were down four points from their 30-per-cent score in the last election.

There is no second chance in numbers like that. Never mind that Turner was given a second election in 1988. He was the party's first choice for leader in 1984, and its second choice, Jean Chrétien, stepped back into private life in 1986. Dion was the third choice in 2006, an accidental leader who never took the time to build a personal leadership base.

In the campaign, he imposed his Green Shift on the party without any consultation with the rank and file. His carbon tax was a message that couldn't be sold, and neither could the messenger.

At the beginning of the campaign, Dion couldn't get his plane in the air for four days, and at the end couldn't get it home from Vancouver to Montreal so that he could vote early enough on election day to get on television. What, they've never heard of the Red Eye from Vancouver? Well, if you can't play the game at this level, get off the ice.

The remorseless historical fact is that Dion will be the only Liberal leader since Edward Blake, and the only francophone or Quebec leader in the party's history, not to become prime minister. He has made other lasting contributions to the public life of our country, but being prime minister will not be one of them.

He needs to accept it, deal with it, and move on. The country and the party have already moved on from him.

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