Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Plot Thickens

Well, the Liberal Leadership Convention is over and -
who woulda thought? - Stephane Dion, of all people, is the new Parliamentary Leader of the Liberal Party. I wonder if there's even a single pundit who saw this coming?

Apparently part of the explanation has to do with some meddling by the Tories - who are now claiming to have thrown a bunch of money behind a stealth advertising campaign to sabotage über-leftist (and former Ontario PM as an NDP member) Bob Rae's campaign. Which is weird, because Rae was never in first place, but I guess the thinking was that once Kennedy or Dion (heh-heh) got knocked out, their delegates would vote for Rae rather than Ignatieff. Anyway - the Conservatives are pretty pleased with themselves.

As for me - I think Dion is a VERY interesting "choice." I put choice in shock quotes because I think this is in many ways another example of procedural mundania trumping popular will in Canada. A better way to read his win is to say that the party voted against Ignatieff, but couldn't make up its mind between Rae and Kennedy as an alternative, and Dion manaaged to pick up the pieces. He's nobody's first choice. But that aside, what kind of choice is he?

For one thing, he's highly intelligent and competent, like Paul Martin before him, and, more to the point, like Stephen Harper, his direct opponent in the next election. (I guess in Martin's case it might be better to say he was more competent than intelligent.) For another - and this is important - he's from Quebec and has the "correct" opinion on separation: which is to say, he was a big supporter of Harper's "nationhood" bill, but is staunchly anti-separationist and also staunchly anti-Bloc. The media, predictably, is saying that he's therefore the proper heir to the Trudeau legacy. But of course this is wrong - Trudeau probably wouldn't have supported Harper's bill, chattering class commentary notwithstanding. He famously said, after all, that Meech Lake - which Dion supported - would destine Canada to "eventually be governed by eunuchs." But Trudeau is dead and hasn't been Prime Minister for some time - Dion's take on this issue is "correct" for the present decade. Not that that helps him in Quebec - where he is unpopular and something of a joke. But it will help him soothe some anxiety with the rest of Canada - especially given how enthusiastic Ignatieff was about spelling out the legal details of Quebec's new "national" status.

With regard to the Liberal Party, I can't decide whether I'm glad Ignatieff lost. Certainly he would have been a disaster as PM. Michael Ignatieff is the very face of the new left - George Lakoff as a politician (though, to be fair, much smarter and much much less ridiculous - every bit as smug and shallow, though). And he might have even won the election - which would have been bad news. But in the longterm that might have been just what the doctor ordered to start slaying the Liberal Party beast. He would have divided the party and made it look ridiculous. Maybe it's better, though, not to have to take that risk. Dion may well lose the next election - returning Harper to office with a real majority? Who knows - Conservative governments have been reelected before (Mulroney in 1988), but usually with a cut in support, and Harper has no leeway here. Can this be the first time since the war that a Tory Government actually makes gains in a second win? We'll see. It's too early to make any serious predictions. I imagine the Liberals will want to push for an election soon, now that they have a new leader - but officially Harper still has 4 years in office before a mandatory election is called. Dion will have to find a suitable issue for a confidence vote - which will probably be a budget vote, and I'm not sure when the next one of those is, nor whether the Tory budget will be suitably controversial as a basis for an election. Harper, for his part, might want an election, though, so maybe they'll work something out between them.

On the whole, Dion's win is as unexpected as it is welcome. Given Dion's unpopularity in Quebec, Harper may be able to shore up some gains there after all. Plus, Dion has the attractive feature of being both competent and unlikely to win. So Canada's majority party can continue to funciton as a "brain trust" for what to do if Harper's Western Revolution loses momentum, but do so without directly threatening said momentum. Ideal! Canada gets to keep its backup plan (security blanket, more like), but the experiment in transformation can go foreward. Erm...I mean, "get off the ground," actually. So far, Harper hasn't been able to accomplish anything too radical given his paper-thin majority in Commons. That may be about to change?

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