Dion should quit whining: His loss was his own fault

Liberal leader is delusional to blame Conservative attack ads for his defeat

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 22, 2008

There are only two major national parties in this country, and the job of the leader of each is to unite the party, fill its campaign coffers, and win the election. Stéphane Dion never understood this, and never accomplished any of those tasks, which is why he's out of a job as Liberal leader.

The leader of the other national party, Stephen Harper, has always understood he had to unite the right, bring it to power, and keep it there, which is why he has two jobs, one as Conservative leader and the other as prime minister.

Dion thought he could win an election by saving the planet, but his Green Shift was a strategy born of desperation when he had failed at all his other tasks. And it turned out to be an incomprehensible message from an incoherent leader. It also made a ballot question about Dion rather than about Harper.

And Dion blames Conservative attack ads for his defeat? He is delusional. There's no doubt that the Conservatives effectively defined Dion as "not a leader" from the first series of pre-writ television ads at the beginning of 2007. But Dion allowed the Conservatives to define him, and the Liberals failed to push back with a pre-writ buy of their own, quite simply because they were broke.

And whose fault was that? Well, certainly Jean Chrétien is partly to blame for his legacy campaign-finance reform that prohibited corporate donations, the very mother's milk of Liberal fundraising. The party of the $5,000-a-table dinner was put out of business by its own outgoing leader. The Conservatives played within Chrétien's 2003 rules, and later tightened them, limiting individual donations to parties and to leadership campaigns to $1,100 per person per year.

It is not the Conservatives' fault that going into the election, they had raised four times as much money in each of the last two years as the Liberals. Or that the Conservative donor base is several times larger than that of the Liberals, who have never adapted to the new rules of the game, rules they themselves enacted when in government.

Dion's complaint that he was the victim of Conservative propaganda, and that Canadians never got to know him, is just so much whining.

The fact is that he lost, and at 26 per cent of the popular vote, posted the worst score in the history of the Liberal Party, eclipsing John Turner's 28 per cent in the Mulroney landslide of 1984.

And if Dion wants to know why, he needs to come back to the job description of uniting the party, financing its campaign and taking it to power.

As an accidental leader, the third and even fourth choice of delegates on the first ballot at the 2006 leadership convention, he had special challenges in bringing Liberals together. Eighty-two per cent of the delegates had voted for another candidate. He was also a leader without a power base in his own province of Quebec.

This was a flashing light of danger from the day Dion took over the party, but he never succeeded, or even tried, to build a big tent in which his vanquished leadership rivals could flourish. He never built a front bench that said to the country: This is the Liberal team, this is a government-in-waiting. It isn't that Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and the other others weren't occasionally consulted. But their advice was invariably ignored.

And then on campaign financing, the Liberal Party went into the election having raised only $4 million in the last year, and relying on its anticipated allowance from Elections Canada, against which it would have had to borrow at the bank to spend the $18-million legal limit in the election. Dion had two years to get those finances in shape, but as of now still has a $200,000 debt from his own leadership race.

And now the Liberals find themselves in a very bad spot. In addition to the campaign debts they've assumed, their parliamentary and campaign allowances will be reduced to reflect their score. They elected only 76 MPs, 27 fewer than 2006, and that will cost them over $1 million a year in office staff.

They received 850,000 fewer votes than in 2006, and that means the payments from Elections Canada to the Liberal Party will shrink by $1.6 million a year, or more than $6 million over the next four years.

And finally they went into an election with a platform that couldn't be sold, and a leader who couldn't sell it.

All this because of Conservative pre-writ advertising? Nope. Sorry. Time for a reality check, in the mirror.

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