Quebecers don't like Dion because he is a centralist

The Liberal leader must shake that image to make inroads in this province

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

Stéphane Dion won't escape it. The upcoming federal election could end up as a referendum - if you'll pardon the use of the word - on his own leadership.
Even though Dion and Stephen Harper aren't exactly overflowing with charisma, the prime minister has at least come to be perceived as a strong leader, even by Canadians who don't vote for the Conservative Party. But Dion, the man with the killer instincts of a teddy bear, is seen as a weak leader, even by a number of Liberal supporters.
Dion's Achilles' heel going into this campaign isn't so much his complex "green shift" proposal as it is his overall inability, so far, to establish himself as a politically savvy prime minister in waiting. Yes, election campaigns do matter and they sometimes produce surprising results. Witness the 2006 election that produced this minority government.

But leadership matters as well, be it real or perceived. With the Liberal Party sorely lacking in money, organization and star candidates, compared with the Tories who are super-prepared and well-financed, how well Dion can overcome his main defect during the campaign might determine if the Grits can form even a minority government.
Luckily for the Liberals, they're doing well in some regions of Canada, including the crucial province of Ontario. But a CROP poll confirmed this week they're still in trouble in Quebec. Their support stands at a dismal 16 per cent among francophones with Dion seen as the best choice for prime minister by only 15 per cent of respondents.
Dion's main problem is not his personality. It's his baggage as Jean Chrétien's unity minister as well as his failure as Liberal leader to change and compete with Harper's open federalism. That explains why even his metamorphosis into Mr. Environment, though a popular issue in Quebec, hasn't helped him overcome his image as the Clarity Act bogeyman.
Having the Trudeau-era Céline Hervieux-Payette as his Quebec lieutenant and Justin Trudeau as a candidate won't help him in shedding his centralist image. What would help though is if sometime during the next campaign, he were to pull a surprise, reverse Trudeau and present concrete proposals to strengthen Quebec's role within the federation.
Yesterday, Hervieux-Payette promised the Liberals would deliver a modern, bold campaign like that of Barack Obama. If that's so, they better make sure that renewing their approach to Quebec is part of their new boldness. Given that Harper can be expected to pull some more rabbits out his hat for Quebec, Dion has no choice.
As a taste of what's to come, Tories have put out a new French-language TV ad. Aiming at the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals, Harper and his Quebec ministers present themselves as the best defenders of Quebec's interests. Their slogan: Avec les Conservateurs, le Québec prend des forces.
For now, Dion has chosen to ride the wave of opposition from Quebec artists against the government's recent cuts in arts funding. But his problem is that this theme is already taken by the more popular Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and the NDP's Jack Layton. For the Bloc, this new sign of Harper's right-wing penchant could even be the lifeline they need to cater to centrist and left-of-centre voters.
Dion is no Obama. But if Dion is to establish himself as a credible leader in his home province, he'll have to offer Quebecers real change they can believe in, as Obama would say. That means action and clear commitments. Not only words.
- Political columnist Michel Vastel has died. His bold statements and hot temper never left anyone indifferent. Michel was anything but boring. I found that out when I was his daily sparring partner on CKAC along with La Presse's Yves Boisvert. Michel loved what he did and his writings showed it. He will be sadly missed by his colleagues.

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