What's wrong with Stéphane Dion? Why is the Liberal leader unable to restore his party's fortunes in his own province? Why have the Tories replaced the party of Laurier, Trudeau and Chrétien as the first federalist party in Quebec?
These questions are more timely than ever, after the abysmal performance of the Liberal Party in last week's Quebec by-elections.
Not only did the Liberal Party lose its historical stronghold of Outremont - a multicultural riding in which, as the saying went, anything red, a pole or a pig, would be automatically elected - it ended up with less than 10 per cent of the vote in the French-speaking ridings of Roberval and St-Hyacinthe.
The Liberal establishment argues that by-elections don't mean much. Wrong. In this case, they do. By-elections usually bring out a protest vote and thus favour the opposition party; but this time around, the governmental party was the overall winner. The Tories won a landslide in the Bloc Québécois bastion of Roberval, and substantially increased their share of the vote in St-Hyacinthe. Even the victory of the NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair in Outremont is good news for the Tories, since the Liberal Party and the NDP compete for the left-of-centre vote.
The prospects for the Liberals in Quebec are bleak. A Leger Marketing poll a few days before the by-elections shows that among francophone voters, the Liberal Party, with 16 per cent of the vote, is trailing the Bloc (43 per cent) and the Tories (25 per cent). While 26 per cent of Quebec voters chose Stephen Harper as the best man for prime minister, only 9 per cent (and 7 per cent of francophones) chose Mr. Dion, who even comes far behind NDP leader Jack Layton (18 per cent).
The Liberal establishment argues that the party's misfortune in Quebec is a sequel to the sponsorship scandal. Wrong again. This scandal is history. Practically nobody talks about it, and in any case, Mr. Dion was not personally linked to the sponsorship operation. The simple truth is that Mr. Dion is not liked in Quebec and that francophone voters don't identify with him.
At the outset, when he ran for the leadership, Mr. Dion had very little support in Quebec. Most delegates sided with Michael Ignatieff. After becoming leader, he was unable to rally Mr. Ignatieff's partisans. Many Quebec Liberals are staying on the sidelines, waiting for a general election and a change of leadership.
The sovereigntists still hate Mr. Dion for having been such a staunch adversary of their cause, and Mr. Dion has been unable to connect with the soft nationalists who make up the larger group of francophone voters. At best, the non-sovereigntist francophones are indifferent to him.
The Liberal Leader's new image as an environmentalist serves him well, but only up to a point. He comes across as stubborn and arrogant, and his policies are hard to follow. On Afghanistan, for instance, his relentless insistence that the government fix a precise date for a retreat of the troops seems needlessly quarrelsome.
The Liberal leader is increasingly alienated from his home province. Either because he wanted it this way or because he couldn't find anybody reliable to work with, he is almost exclusively surrounded by anglophone advisers from Ontario. His rare francophone advisers - people like former cabinet minister Marcel Massé, press secretary Robert Asselin or Marc Lavigne, who was in charge of the organization for Quebec - resigned one after the other, allegedly because Mr. Dion wouldn't take any advice about how to deal with the province.
"The boss doesn't listen to anybody," an insider says, "and that's a problem, especially when one doesn't have a great deal of political instinct." As if to confirm this judgment, the day after his party's beating in the Quebec by-elections, Mr. Dion couldn't find anything better to do than to champion the cause of Omar Khadr, a terrorism suspect whose family had links with al-Qaeda.