Dion must win over party

New Liberal leader should keep in mind only 17.8 per cent of delegates voted for him as their first choice

S. Dion, chef du PLC

The first thing Stephane Dion needs to do as federal Liberal leader is - no, wait, he's already done that.
He's reached out to the candidates he defeated, first in his victory speech at the convention on Saturday evening, and then at a lunch with them the following day.
OK, so the next thing he needs to do is to have a sign made and put it somewhere he'll see it every morning.
All it should say is "17.8 per cent," which was Dion's share of the vote on the first ballot at the convention. That would remind him that he was not the first choice of 82.2 per cent of the delegates. And it would remind him not to repeat the error of Jean Charest and Stephen Harper.
Both of them overestimated the strength of the mandates they received from a small minority of their respective electorates - 32 per cent of the registered voters in Charest's case, 23 per cent in Harper's. And both assumed since the election was over, they could stop campaigning.
Dion has won the leadership. But now he needs to win over that large majority of the party that until three days ago had doubts he was the best candidate for the job.
Leadership campaigns, especially hotly contested ones such as the one just concluded, leave wounds and internal divisions that take time to heal. And the next election appears to be only months away.
Dion should not be deceived by the cheers that greeted runner-up Michael Ignatieff, when, in a concession speech as gracious as Dion's acceptance, he made the traditional proposal that the vote in favour of the winner be made unanimous.
In particular, Dion needs to move quickly to head off a threatened exodus from the party of French-speaking Quebecers who believe he is unelectable in French Quebec.
They might be wrong about that. It's true francophone opinion leaders are almost universally hostile toward Dion, whom they consider a traitor for his opposition not only to sovereignty but also to Quebec's demands for more money and power within Canada.
But poll results published yesterday indicate Quebec public opinion was initially receptive to Dion's election as Liberal leader.
In the survey, conducted the day after his election by the Strategic Counsel for the Globe and Mail and CTV News, 62 per cent of Quebecers said Dion is a good choice as Liberal leader. In fact, Dion's election was received better by Quebecers than by other Canadians.
But on the whole, the message from Quebec in the poll was mixed, because Dion also had high negatives. The proportion of respondents saying he was a poor choice was also highest in Quebec (29 per cent).
There was no information available from the polling firm as to whether those saying he was a poor choice were sovereignists of others who weren't likely to vote Liberal anyway.
But Dion's election had no impact on federal party preferences in Quebec. And while 23 per cent of Quebecers said they were more likely to vote Liberal now that he is leader, even more, 30 per cent, said they were less likely to do so. Again, both proportions were higher than in the rest of the country.
So if Dion gets a post-election honeymoon with his fellow French-speaking Quebecers, it might be a cool one. And it could end quickly if he can't get the Quebec holdouts to rally to him.
He might not be able to persuade MP Jean Lapierre to run again in the next election, especially if it looks as though he won't be a cabinet minister.
But Dion's priority is to persuade another prominent MP, Denis Coderre, not to quit immediately. Coderre was national co-chairman of Ignatieff's campaign and during voting at the convention tried unsuccessfully to get his candidate to go to Bob Rae to stop Dion.
Coderre is suspected of having leadership ambitions of his own, and might have calculated the election of an English-speaking leader this time would favour a French-speaking candidate next time, because of the party's tradition of alternating between the two.
Maybe Ignatieff, who called for unity in his concession speech, can appeal to Coderre's loyalty to the party, if not to its new leader.

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