Stephane Dion, the Chamaeleon With a Past

The come-from-behind win of Stephane Dion at the federal Liberal leadership convention in early December rattled the party’s establishment and boosted Liberals in opinion polls. To capture the crown Dion, the 51 year old former Universite de Montreal political science professor turned-politician, wrapped himself in the green flag. He tried to sound like an innovator in his appeal to the 4,600 delegates, knowing that the scandal-plagued party was desperate for a radical make over. And he worked hard to downplay his notorious hostility to Quebec national rights.

 

But sooner than later the record of this chamaeleon will catch up with him. Behind the shy grin and bookish awkwardness is a hard-line political pro who made his bed with corporate Canada long ago. (Thus there are no worries on Bay Street, despite their first preferences, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae, coming in second and third respectively).

 

Dion was recruited to the government team by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien after the near-victory by sovereignists in the 1995 Quebec referendum. As Minister of Inter-Governmental Affairs, 1996-2003, Dion was the eager architect of the anti-democratic Clarity Act. The law enables Parliament to veto a majority vote by the Quebecois people for self-government. For that, he remains vilified in his home province, and not surprisingly came third in Liberal delegate strength in Quebec, behind Ignatieff and Rae. Liberal insiders maintain that in general elections Quebecers usually favour one of their own, and there is some truth to that claim — but such support will more likely come at the expense of the Conservatives rather than via a growth of the pro-federalist vote there.

 

We need to add environmental sustainability at the core of who we are as Liberals,” Dion said at his maiden news conference as leader. But it appears this will take some doing.

In 1993 the Liberals promised to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2005. Instead they allowed them to increase by over 30%.

 

Last fall, a UN report concluded that Canada’s pollution has increased more than any other signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. The federal Environment Commissioner said “Even if the measures contained in the [Liberal] government’s 2005 plan had been fully implemented, it is difficult to say whether the projected emission reductions would have been enough to meet our Kyoto obligations . . . [the plan was] not up to the task of meeting the Kyoto obligations.” – Report of the Environment Commissioner, Overview, page 9, 28 September 2006.

 

As federal Environment Minister, 2004-2006, Dion had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the real extent of his commitment to dealing with climate change — and perhaps he did. (That is, apart from naming his snow white Husky dog ‘Kyoto’). At the U.N. climate conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Canada placed 51st out of 56 countries that were assessed for their performance and policies on climate change.

 

The Liberal Party have no credibility on cleaning our environment. It’s incredible to see them use one of their greatest failures as a rallying point,” said the environment critic for the labour-based New Democratic Party, Nathan Cullen. “The Liberals can change their leader but they can’t change their record.”

 

What about ethics? NDP MP Pat Martin pointed out that Stephane Dion was silent on the Quebec sponsorship scandal and on the question of accountability. And his competition was no better, including Gerard Kennedy, the former Ontario Education Minister whose support at the Liberal convention catapulted Dion into first place on the third ballot. Kennedy’s 10,000 word platform did not mention the word “ethics”. Neither did Michael Ignatieff’s 42 page policy document. Bob Rae made no speech on ethics or accountability whatsoever.

 

We read today of almost a million dollars in loans to Bob Rae from Power Corp’s John Rae,” said the NDP’s Pat Martin. “The candidates have failed to address big money’s influence in this leadership race. Whether it’s (Joe) Volpe’s addiction to Apotex (the pharmaceutical giant) or Rae’s addiction to Power Corp, we see the Liberal Party’s continued addiction to corporate money.”

 

Though Dion was not the first choice of the bosses of the political party that has governed Canada two-thirds of the time since the country was founded in 1867, the economic ‘powers that be’ still run the show, and now he is their man – a man on whom they can rely.

 

Dion sat at the Cabinet table when Liberals betrayed their promise to create 150,000 new child care spaces. After 12 years and three majority governments, and 8 years of back-to-back surpluses equalling over $63 billion, the kids of working women and men are still waiting.

 

In their first four years in office, the Liberals cut over $25 billion from health care and education, scrapped theCanada Assistance Plan, scrapped the federal role in building affordable housing, and reduced eligibility for women to get Employment Insurance. Today Dion ranks ‘social equality’ as one of his top three policy planks. But what was he doing about those savage anti-social cuts during his ten years in office?

 

We do know what he was saying during the escalation of Ottawa’s imperialist military adventures. Ten months ago, as his party’s foreign affairs critic, Dion was a staunch backer of the decision to send Canadian troops into combat in Kandahar.

 

It’s a very important mission and we want to be there,” he told a Canadian Press reporter in early March. “We will succeed in Afghanistan if we show a lot of determination,” he said on CTV a few days later. “We need to be resolute and to succeed.” (Is it possible that Donald Rumsfeld was his voice coach?)

 

In September, when NDP leader Jack Layton called on the government to withdraw its troops by early 2007, Dion was caustic. “No one wants us to get out now, like Mr. Layton, in dishonour,” he said on September 17.

 

But today, in the wake of ongoing street protests and opinion polls that show a majority in opposition to the war (especially in Quebec), Dion states that trying to “kill the Taliban in every corner of the mountains doesn’t work”, and that he is not committed to keeping Canadian troops in Kandahar until 2009. Mind you, that should not be mistaken for a principled ‘troops out now’ position. It merely shows the political chameleon adapting to his environment.

 

One thing that the leadership race succeeded in doing for the Liberals is putting the squeeze on the NDP – which was precisely what the soft-left Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy campaigns were calculated to do.

 

According to a Toronto Star-EKOS Reseach poll released on December 9, the Liberals would be close to winning a majority government with the support of 40.1 per cent of decided voters, compared to 33.5 per cent for the current minority government Conservatives led by Stephen Harper. The NDP is down to 10.2 per cent across the country, well below the 17.5 per cent of the vote it received in the January 2006 federal election. Now the Green Party is within striking distance at 7.6 per cent. The Bloc Quebecois, which runs candidates only in Quebec, leads in that province with 34.7 per cent support.

 

Once the pro-Liberal media adulation dies down, and the gloss is off Stephane Dion, the NDP vote will re-bound. But the NDP’s eternal weakness remains Quebec. The latest NDP policies, including more powers for Quebec(asymmetrical federalism) and a pledge to respect a future vote on sovereignty, may help. Noticeable, however, was the party’s silence on Dion’s record on the Quebec question, despite stinging NDP criticism directed at him on many other legitimate issues.

 

A final footnote: The mercurial David Orchard, Saskatchewan organic farmer and arch-Canadian nationalist who twice came close to winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, arrived at the Liberal leadership convention commanding a platoon of 175 delegates totally loyal to his choice for leader. According to The TorontoStar columnist Thomas Walkom, Orchard joined the Liberal Party last January and with his supporters set about capturing a solid bloc of riding associations in the west where the party is weak.

 

And who was Orchard backing all the way? None other than Stephane Dion, the strongest opponent of Quebec’s national rights in the field, next to Gerard Kennedy, and Kennedy’s most celebrated supporter, Justin Trudeau (son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau). Both are bitterly opposed to recognition of the concept of a Quebec nation, and both rallied to Dion after the second ballot.