Stéphane Dion's big green question

Can a political leader run on a single issue and win a country?

S. Dion, chef du PLC

Stéphane Dion is a leader of formidable strengths and potentially crippling liabilities, but, more than that, he is a man with a mission, and only one mission.
He has dedicated himself and, now, the Liberal Party to a single cause: reshaping the federal government, the Canadian economy and the behaviour of Canadians, all in the service of an environmental agenda.
And he seems determined not to compromise. At his press conference, yesterday, while francophone reporters sought to draw him, once again, into the morass of nationalism and fiscal imbalance, Mr. Dion continued to preach that a Liberal government would be about environmental sustainability, first, last and always.
In this writer's memory, there has never been a leader of a major federal party so dedicated to one cause, virtually to the exclusion of all others.
Pierre Trudeau's obsession with national unity and constitutional reform is the closest parallel. That quest dominated the political agenda for a decade and a half.
Do not for a moment believe that, for Stéphane Dion, the stakes are any lower.
So how will environment-uber-alles play? Differently, in different places, because other factors will figure in the equation.
The Liberal Party of Canada has chosen a leader from Quebec for the third time in a row, which now makes it four out of the last five leaders, stretching back to 1968.
Parts of the country display growing impatience with the francophone agenda, as the Quebec-as-nation debate richly demonstrated. For those more interested in issues of productivity, competitiveness, trade and training, Mr. Dion is going to be a hard sell.
He will be a hard sell within his own province, as well. Mr. Dion's staunch federalism alienates nationalist Quebeckers. But the former university professor's relentless logic - remember those letters to Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry during the Clarity Act debates? - may carry him further than his enemies predict.
Choosing Mr. Dion confirms that the Liberal Party still has no serious interest in the West outside Vancouver. As for that city, there are votes to be won on an environmental agenda, and votes to be lost because that agenda is being delivered by yet another French Quebecker. But Ontario - and yes, it is tiresome - elects the government: Seven million voters in Greater Toronto, Ottawa, London and environs will decide Mr. Dion's fate. And what will they decide?
They will fracture by residence, income and generation. Those who commute by public transit will welcome its expansion; those who commute by car will chafe at higher gasoline prices and tolls.
The assembly-line worker will worry about losing his job, if stringent new environmental measures render manufacturers uncompetitive. But parents with an asthmatic child - and, these days, there are so many - will celebrate air-pollution controls. The young, and perhaps the old, will embrace this champion of what is, for them, a self-evident necessity to relieve the stress on our air and water. But anyone with a mortgage may wonder if Mr. Dion is getting carried away, and taking us with him.
We should not understate the significance of Mr. Dion's victory. He, with the indispensable help of Gerard Kennedy, managed to defeated the candidates of the Liberal establishment, while unifying the party. (High praise is due to Bob Rae, as well, for releasing his delegates rather than trying to swing, and thus polarize, the convention.)
He has laid to rest the taint of corruption and power-politicking left by the Chrétien and Martin years. And Mr. Dion, like Stephen Harper, is a man of formidable intellect and principled politics.
But one person's principles can be seen by another as ideology, and by still others as fanaticism. As one wise observer noted yesterday, Canada is now the world's only developed democracy in which one of the major political parties is green. That green party is the Liberal Party, traditionally a bastion of self-interested pragmatism.
Contradictions such as that are not easily reconciled.

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