Send in the clowns

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National Post, Friday, April 4, 2008

The Liberal Party of Canada went to court this week, seeking an injunction against La Presse publishing a list of candidates, which turned out on close examination to be a list, but not the list.

Or as Vincent Marissal recounted the affair in a hilarious column yesterday: "The Liberal Party of Canada dragged La Presse before a judge of the Superior Court late Tuesday night to prevent publication of a list -- which we didn't have."

Marissal had a list of confirmed candidates, a list with 31 names on it, a far cry from the 50 candidates Stephane Dion and his Quebec lieutenant, Celine Hervieux-Payette, boasted of having lined up at a news conference last week. In the process of verifying their claims, Marissal called Liberal headquarters for confirmation.

Their response was to push the panic button, call in their lawyers from Heenan Blaikie, demand that the list not be published and seek a late-night injunction in court. As Dion and Hervieux-Payette explained it outside of caucus Wednesday morning, they thought La Presse had a super secret list of candidates, including public servants and others whose employers would be annoyed by their candidacy being outed. When the Liberals got before the judge, in a courtroom crowded with media, they were cringing with embarrassment, withdrew their complaint and La Presse published the list yesterday as part of a huge 16-column spread over two full pages in the front section. The list included top secret recruits Justin Trudeau and Marc Garneau.

No one from the party even called Marissal back to confirm what the paper had. Hervieux-Payette just assumed he had her secret list. "Shoot first and ask questions later," he wrote. "Except once again, the Liberal party shot itself in the foot."

Or, as Jimmy Breslin famously titled one of his books: The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

It's not over. Having spent thousands of dollars on legal fees to protect a list that turns out to be another list, Hervieux-Payette is being called to account by the president of the party in Quebec, Robert Fragasso, with whom she has been openly feuding. The lawyers were called in without his knowledge. A party that's flat broke just spent money it doesn't have to prevent a newspaper from publishing a list of candidates it didn't have.

Welcome to Dion's world, a world completely disconnected from reality, except perhaps for the literary world of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. That was the sense party executives took from a meeting last week, where Dion was reduced to publicly declaring that he was the leader, and entitled to the loyalty of his troops.

Then last weekend, there was extremely bad news for Dion in the authoritative CROP poll, which only confirmed that the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chretien is going nowhere in Quebec under the current leader, who has no standing in his own province.

The top line showed the Bloc Quebecois (30%) and the Conservatives (29%) virtually tied, with the Liberals at 20% and the NDP at 15%. What's happening here is that the NDP is growing at the expense of both the Liberals and Bloc, and the erosion of Bloc support almost entirely benefits the Tories off the island of Montreal.

And in this key battleground of 50 seats known as ROQ (Rest of Quebec), the Liberals are completely out of the game. The linguistic and regional breakouts tell the story. In the crucial francophone demographic -- 85% of all voters -- the Bloc is at 35%, the Tories at 30%, while the NDP and Liberals are tied at 15%. This means the Liberals wouldn't win a single seat off the island of Montreal (neither would the NDP, but that's another story).

And in the important 418 region of Quebec City and eastern Quebec, the Tories are poised to sweep at 41%, with the Bloc at 25% and the NDP at 17%. The Liberals are at 14% -- in fourth place in their leader's hometown of Quebec City (though his seat of St-Laurent in West Island Montreal is one of the safest Liberal ridings in creation). But that's what the Liberals would be looking at in an early election -- their seemingly impenetrable fortress of the western half of Montreal --about 10 seats out of 75 across Quebec. And even in Montreal, the Liberal numbers are somewhat soft at 32%, with the Bloc at 25% and the Conservatives starting to creep onto the island at 21%.

Rather than reaching out to the party's best Quebec organizer, Denis Coderre, for help, Dion instead demoted him this week from defence critic to heritage spokesman. This was an incredibly obstinate and stupid decision by Dion, giving Coderre a licence to lead a simmering revolt against the leader.

It's an axiom of politics that a leader is in trouble when he becomes the object of laughter. But Dion's predicament in Quebec has moved beyond comedy, to ridicule.

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