Sunday, December 02, 2007

How Far We've Come

It was a year ago today that the green scarves spread throughout the Palais de Congress, propelling Stephane Dion to a surprising 5th ballot victory in Montreal. There are no shortage of reflection pieces out there about this anniversary, many of them taking on obituary form.

It would be hard to deny that it hasn't been a good start for the backpacked professor. But, at the same time, his first year wasn't any worse than the first year of his three predecessors. It certainly wasn't any worse than the first year of the other consensus candidate who won his party's leadership on the same day.

There haven't been any high profile gaffes or glaring strategic mistakes (apart from his selection of Jocelyn Coulon for the Outremont byelection). Instead, three nagging problems seem to have cropped up. First, the Tory "not a leader" ads have resonated with both the media and the general public. It was a smart branding and, since it's a lot easier for a PM than an opposition leader to look like a leader, it's gained traction. It certainly hasn't helped that a few Liberals would rather organize against Dion than against Harper but that's a fact of life in politics.

Second, the Liberal Party is a mess structurally. The constant election threat that hangs over minority governments has made rebuilding harder - the was no time for a Kingston or Aylmer conference and the party has had to focus on election readiness rather than fundraising or restructuring. In Quebec especially, the party appears to be in shambles and it certainly doesn't help matters when people like Denis Coderre and Pablo Rodriguez refuse to step up to the plate when called upon to do so by their leader. Outremont showed what a lack of organization can lead to and it's clear work needs to be done - not just by Dion, but by the party as a whole.

The third problem is Dion's less-than-Churchillian communication abilities in English. I don't think this is fatal, but there aren't a lot of obvious solutions. Easier to fix is the lack of a clear message or general sense of what the Liberal Party stands for. I think there's a lot of potential with the "three pillars" and "green economy" stuff and, luckily, most Canadians do have a good sense of what the Liberal brand represents - always being in power will do that for you. All that's really needed is an overarching theme or story as to why Harper shouldn't be Prime Minister and why Stephane Dion should be. And, no, that theme is not "Brian Mulroney". There are definitely punches to be landed on the yet-to-be-named-scandal but there needs to be an easy to understand message for Canadians as to why Stephane Dion deserves to be the next Prime Minister. On the policy front, I think Dion is well positioned. He's got ownership of the environment and poverty. He's got credibility on federalism from his Clarity Act days. I also think there are votes to be gained on Afghanistan (with a clearer position) as well as traditional Liberal issues like cities, social issues and immigration - all it takes are some decisive, well communicated policies. What's missing is a simple and clear message of what Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party represent.

Despite a decade in elected office, Dion has never been touched by scandal. The Elizabeth May deal showed he's willing to think outside the box which is encouraging. And there's a very strong team of candidates with the likes of Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay, Marc Garneau, and Justin Trudeau vying for seats. With a clear election message and structural improvements to the party, there's no reason things can't be turned around.

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