Stephane Dion's Quebec problem

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Thursday, March 27, 2008

In a way, Stephane Dion's leadership problems began on Day One, in December, 2006, when 82% of the delegates to the Liberal convention voted for someone else on the first ballot.

When Dion stormed from third place to overtake Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, there were at least two other guys who thought they should have won. Actually three, counting Gerard Kennedy, who would have been third rather than fourth if a handful of his delegates hadn't parked with Martha Hall Findlay on the first ballot to reward her for an outstanding speech.

In that sense, Dion wasn't even the third man, but the fourth. A man who would have been a kingmaker ended up as an accidental king. Uneasy, then, lies the crown.

Ever since, Dion has been faced with questions of legitimacy, which his weak performance in the House and on the hustings, as well as in organization and fundraising, has only aggravated.

Nowhere is Dion's leadership under more pressure than in his own province of Quebec. And a leader without a base is like a prophet without honour in his own land.

To put it charitably, Dion is not a favourite son, and never has been in Quebec. As he himself put it to laughter and applause at last October's press gallery dinner, his problem is that in English Canada the voters can't understand him, while in Quebec they just can't stand him.

It begins with his role as the father of the Clarity Act, creating rules of the road for a referendum on sovereignty, requiring a clear answer to a clear question. While it established Dion as the "unity minister" in the English-language media, it never played well at home, where he was portrayed as an heir of Pierre Trudeau -- a Quebecer bent on thwarting the aspirations of his own province. Compared to Trudeau, it was said that Dion had all of the arrogance and none of the charm.

As intergovernmental affairs minister under Jean Chretien, and later as environment minister under Paul Martin, Quebecers saw Dion as a hectoring hardliner, constantly putting

Quebec in its place. The facts tell another story. Dion has been a classic federalist, consistently defending the constitutional division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. He's also been an outspoken champion of Kyoto, which is hugely popular in Quebec. In effect, he is a victim of an urban legend.

But in Dion's 16 months as leader, he's done nothing to restore the fortunes of the Liberal party in Quebec, whose brand has been battered over the last quarter-century, from the unilateral patriation of the Constitution to the sponsorship scandal. And in the 2006 election, the Liberals and Conservatives traded places as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc Quebecois in the 50 seats outside Montreal.

That was a very bad development for the Liberals. It smashed the symbiotic relationship between them and the Bloc, with whom they effectively had divided the province's vote in the four previous elections since 1993.

Last September's Quebec byelections confirmed this ominous trend, as the Liberals finished a bad third in two of them off the island of Mont-real, while a handpicked Dion candidate lost the historic Liberal riding of Outremont to the NDP. Recent polls confirm that while the Liberals have climbed out of the teens into the low-20s province-wide, they remain in third place outside Montreal. In one poll, they even finished fourth, behind the NDP, in the francophone vote.

Thus, in the party of Laurier, St-Laurent, Trudeau and Chretien, a leader from Quebec has no standing in his own province, and is unable to enforce discipline among his own subordinates, who have gone public this week with a series of nasty quotes about the leader. No one is even bothering to hide behind the cloak of non-attribution. All this in advance of a two-day meeting in Montreal where Dion will issue a call to order.

It's quite a spectacle to behold -- Liberals, not Conservatives, fighting over the spoils of defeat.

 
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