Saturday, December 16, 2006

Word Warrior Murray Dobbin on Stéphane Dion

This is the 2nd installment of Murray Dobbin’s series of articles for Insider. The following examines Stéphane Dion’s new position as Liberal Party Leader.

Many thanks to Steven Staples of for the article and the permission to republish here.

Why the Pundits Were Wrong About Stéphane Dion
Special to Insider Subscribers
By Murray Dobbin

The political pundits, party strategists and Bay Street back-room boys are all scrambling to make sense of what happened at the Liberal leadership convention. Though this crowd is supposed to be ready to pontificate and predict no matter what the circumstances, the election of a dark horse candidate threw them all for a political loop. Stéphane Dion had been thoroughly rejected by the Liberal party elite — and that was supposed to be the end of him.

Liberal Leader
Stéphane Dion

But what the entrenched elite - including its media members - didn't count on was some clever organizing by the same determined and focused crew that helped Paul Martin steam roll to his Liberal leadership victory. But most importantly, they didn't count on Liberals being liberal. There was evidently a very powerful sentiment for change in the party, driven not only by the desire to rid itself of recent sponsorship scandal baggage, but simply to cleanse itself of thirteen years of arrogance and hubris. Both Dion and Gerard Kennedy shared small 'l' liberal values and Kennedy (is this man really a Liberal?) decided that winning wasn't everything.

Almost as if to punish Dion for proving them wrong the mainstream analysts immediately began writing the history of Dion as if he had already lost the next election. He has no charisma, his abrupt style irritated his cabinet colleagues, people in Quebec detest him, the West will give short shrift to another Liberal leader from Quebec, he is "tainted" by the sponsorship scandal. Yada, yada.

But they may be whistling another tune sooner than later. First of all, while Dion does have a higher geek reading than other politicians, placed beside the grim and icy Stephen Harper, Dion hardly comes off second best. And while he doesn't have charisma, Dion does have passion. Here's a guy who gets excited by policies - and the vision they can create if put together well.

The contrast between Dion and Harper will be as stark as between any two major party leaders in memory. Harper is openly contemptuous of government and of what Canada has become in three post-war generations. He would like to reduce the federal government's role to the military, CSIS, the RCMP and the Bank of Canada. Dion is a passionate believer in the positive, activist role of government. He ran a campaign based on three pillars: a strong (government guided) economy, sustainable development and social justice. Stephen Harper would have trouble even saying those words without retching.

This is not good news for the Prime Minister of Oilberta. By all accounts Canadians are more than ready for a political leader who is actually enthusiastic about making government serve people rather than the oil patch and Bay Street. Whether Dion is actually progressive on the broad range of issues beyond the environment is still not clear — nor is it clear that he can withstand the withering assault by big business if he dares challenge their carefully constructed status-quo. The Liberal Party gained the reputation for being the "natural governing party" by managing to be the party of both Bay Street and Main Street.

It is here that Dion's reputed intellectual arrogance may serve him well. Noted for being absolutely convinced of his views on the world he is a the polar opposite of Paul Martin who demonstrated that he had absolutely no idea what he believed. That is exactly the way corporate Canada liked it: a blank slate they could write on. But now, of course, thanks to the banning of corporate contributions to political parties (Jean Chretien's most important policy initiative) Bay Street no longer has the financial power to dictate to anyone - especially someone who has no roots in business, and no favours to return.

As for Dion's alleged pariah status in his own province, it is highly over-rated claim. A poll done the night of the leadership vote showed that 62% of Quebecers thought he was a good choice for Liberal leader. To be sure he is detested by the narrow nationalists of the BQ and PQ and the separatist elite. But their influence is waning, especially among a new generation of voters who are more interested in saving the planet than by nationalist fervour. Dion's commitment to the environment (his failure to convince an extremely right wing Martin cabinet to push harder on Kyoto was not for want of trying, and hardly a surprise) is real and will serve him well.

The Bloc's Giles Duceppe may, in Dion, face his toughest opponent of all the Liberal leadership candidates. The separatist elite will hammer away at his "hard-line" federalist stance. But Dion is not the hard-line federalist of the Trudeau and Chretien school: they would never have voted for the resolution declaring the Quebecois a nation. Dion did, and he meant it. And he has already carved out a unique spot with respect to the war in Afghanistan. He has called for a kind of Marshall Plan for the country, and would bring Canadian troops home long before 2009. That and his environmental platform have the potential for making the Bloc's obsession with nationhood look old and stale - and could restore Liberal credibility in Quebec a lot faster than anyone is predicting.

As for the other parties, Dion completely changes the political landscape in ways that neither Ignatieff nor Rae would have done. First, Dion's enviro credentials are seen as unchallengeable in that community. Even Elizabeth May has come out in support of his leadership. He will complicate things for both May and Jack Layton —though arguably Rae would have hurt the NDP more in Ontario. For the first time ever, the leader of one of the two governing parties will be able to appeal credibly to environmental voters (at exactly the time when the environment has become a top-of-mind issue) - and tell them they don't have to vote Green or NDP to be heard.

Dion may still falter. He has his work cut out for him in the West (though historically, the West has mostly liked leaders from Quebec) and Harper is a master political strategist who will take advantage of any Liberal blunders. But if Canadians decide, finally, that they are sick of seeing their country diminished, associated with the war-mongering Bush administration, and held in contempt by its prime minister, Harper will be in for a nasty surprise.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver-based writer and political commentator, and founder of Word Warriors (
He writes a regular column for the on-line journal

11 comment(s):

I usually like Dobbin, but I was disappointed to see such a cheap shot - "Prime Minsiter of Oilberta" - contained within in text. That contempt pretty much discredits everything else he has to say about the west for me.

By Anonymous Kuri, at 9:57 PM  

I suppose we could have done without that "Oilberta" shot, but I still think that Murray Dobbin's analysis is good... and I rather like Stéphane Dion. In my humble opinion, definitely a much better choice than Iggy or Rae. Dion seems to be a humble, good person, and whatever he may lack in 'charisma', he makes up in dedication and social conscience. He is like a breath of fresh air in that stale, old, corruption-riddled Party. A definite improvement!

By Blogger Annamarie, at 11:19 PM  

Dobbin makes a number of good points here, particularly about Dion's possible succes in Quebec.

I respectfully differ with Dobbin on Dion's Afghanistan position, however, because I think that position is unrealistic, contradictory and rather disingenuous. The call for a 'Marshall Plan,' for instance, sounds like rhetoric to me, and stale rhetoric to boot. From 2002 to 2006, George Bush has been comparing the US-led effort in that country (to which Canada, under the Liberals, was a very willing contributor) to the post-war reconstruction effort known as the Marshall Plan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf called (disingenuously, most likely) for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan in November, during meetings with Tony Blair. Blair's response, as he pointed to the 2006 Afghanistan Compact (agreed to by Canada and a number of other nations) was essentially "Sorry, I gave at the office." I see no reason to believe that Dion will be any more persuasive in getting the richer nations to cough up the many, many tens of billions of more dollars that would be required for anything like a serious "Marshall Plan" in Afghanistan.

When it comes to Canada, Dion rightly criticizes Harper's "neoconservative" philosophy, his failure to believe in the power of government to help an economy develop, but when he transfers that criticism to the mission in Afghanistan, it sounds like an empty slogan to me: The Liberals, including Dion, approved the current mission in Kandahar. The behaviour of Pakistan, the Taliban and the drug cartels aren't the result of a post-election change in governing philosophy here in Canada. In fact, the gap between rhetoric and reality would likely be just as large under a Dion-led Liberal government as it is under a Harper-led Conservative one.

In my view, progressives make a serious mistake when they argue (and I'm not saying Dobbin is doing this) that what's going wrong in Afghanistan right now has its roots in Stephen Harper's narrow vision of government or in his specifically "neo-conservative" approach. They forget that when Bill Graham announced the current mission in 2005, he explicitly grounded it in the philosophy of the Liberals' foreign and defence policy statements of April/May 2005.

It's to those documents and the ideas that they contain that we should be looking with a critical eye. Concepts like 'failed states,' 'the three-block war,' 'force transformation,' 'interoperability,' the militarization of aid and the like all need serious critical review. And we need to review them not only because they're Liberal-endorsed ideas, or Conservative-endorsed ideas, but because those ideas lie behind a very dubious foreign-policy and defence-policy consensus that runs the gamut from the National Security Strategy of the United States to Michael Ignatieff's writings to the recent "Political Guidance" document issued by NATO at the Riga summit.

Dion, in offering a rather shallow and blame-shifting analysis of what's going wrong in Afghanistan, is distracting us from what our true task should be in these matters: critically crafting a truly independent and positive foreign and defence policy.

The approach that's failing in Afghanistan right now is not solely a Harper or Bush approach. It's also a Blair/Chretien/Martin/Ignatieff/Graham/Dion/NATO approach. We need to admit that failure and look elsewhere for guidance on how to proceed.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:52 PM  

Indeed, Stephen, and very well said! I agree with you. What I said about Dion in my previous comment is the result of my malfunctioning brain after a long, tiring day...(Unable to get thoughts from brain into sensible words :-)

Progressives should not be mistakenly lulled into complacency because of Dion's win, and we must remember that our role in the Afghan mission was approved by the Liberals. Harper, emboldened by his neoCon party's victory, showed his strong support for Bush by taking it further and signing us on till '09. That mission is, as you've said, far from a "Marshall Plan", and just empty rhetoric. Thanks for reminding me about Dion's shallow analysis!

You are also right on about Canada needing our own, critically-crafted, independent foreign policy and defence policy. Why are we always doing the bidding of the U.S.? Are we not a sovereign nation?

The way I see it, until we get some form of Proportional Representation (PR), where the NDP and Greens get their fare share of seats, not much will change essentially, and most likely not in our foreign/defence policies. Libs/Cons: same coin, different sides... (Although a Harper majority still remains my worst nightmare!)

My hope is that perhaps Dion's Libs will be somewhat more reasonable to work with... It remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, another election is looming, and another round of 'strategic voting' will begin...

Thanks for the reality-check! I appreciate your input.

Have a great holiday!
amd :-)

By Blogger Annamarie, at 1:46 AM  

Kuri, thanks for your comment. I checked out your site, found the link to Glavin's Tyee editorial and read Idealist Pragmatist's excellent response. (I couldn't post her a comment as I don't have ATOM, and don't know how to use/get it.)

Keep spreading the word about PR! That's the only way we can have a chance of getting our gov't back on track. The antiquated FPTP system has to go!! (I'm also with Fair Vote Canada and have been passing out the flyers at all political events, gatherings, libraries, etc.)

Take care and have a great holiday!

amd :)

By Blogger Annamarie, at 1:52 AM  

What I said about Dion in my previous comment is the result of my malfunctioning brain after a long, tiring day...

Not at all, Anna Marie.

Dion is, in my view too, a better choice for the Liberals (I'm not one) than Rae or Ignatieff. And if he's serious about making progress on the environment, that's all to the good as well.

My principal current quarrel with him is the analysis I've seen so far of what's been happening in Afghanistan: we need to go beyond the framework he's laid out thus far if we're to make real progress in understanding, in my view.

Happy holidays to you as well, and here's hoping that you keep up your good blog work in 2007: the blogosphere needs as many voices as possible speaking out for human rights, peace, social justice and the environment.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 AM  

Hi Annemarie, glad you liked IP's post - I think she's a great person! (I didn't realize you needed anything special to comment over there, though - I thought it was just like any other blogger blog.)

Glad to meet another FVC member! I've only just recently gotten formally involved but, like you, I think this is the key to changing politics for the better in Canada. Particularly for me in Alberta - when the Conservatives can win 100% of the seats with only 65% of the popular vote, you know there's something disfunctional with FPTP! I think that's also the source of a lot of stereotyping about my home province and regionalism in Canada - people outside of Alberta only get to see one side of us (the not-so-good side, IMHO).

By Anonymous Kuri, at 11:31 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Annamarie, at 10:31 PM  

Thank you both. Your intelligent comments are much appreciated!

All the best!
amd :)

By Blogger Annamarie, at 10:34 PM  

Thank you both. Your intelligent comments are much appreciated!

All the best!
amd :)

By Blogger Annamarie, at 10:37 PM  

Sorry for the multiple replies... Blogger has been very problematic for me lately. Guess that's because I haven't switched to their new Beta version. No time for that nowadays, so it takes forever to put up a post or comment, and then it's in multiples, and takes forever to delete the extras... Ugh! :)

By Blogger Annamarie, at 10:41 PM  

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