The Liberals' smart choice

S. Dion, chef du PLC

It is a remarkable gamble by the Liberals. By choosing Stéphane Dion, they shed their docility and defied the judgment of party elites, breaking the mould of how Liberal leaders are selected. They rewarded three virtues - courage, intelligence and loyalty - over the usual political calculations about winnability. And they served notice that they believe the environment is an issue with which they can defeat Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
Mr. Dion was a dark horse at the start of the Liberal leadership race 10 months ago, and he was a dark horse almost to the end. He had fewer than one in five delegates on Friday's first ballot, finishing in third place, only two votes ahead of the fourth-place finisher, Gerard Kennedy. Yet now - in large part thanks to Mr. Kennedy, who moved his delegates early and decisively - Mr. Dion is the leader of the party and the Official Opposition and, if you believe the Liberals, the next prime minister of Canada.
Conservatives will have something to say on the matter, of course, and Tory observers at the convention were providing the spin that Mr. Dion was "Harper's choice" - that he was the Liberal candidate they felt was most vulnerable to defeat in a general election. Mr. Dion has already benefited from such low expectations. In fact, the Liberals chose a new leader who in many respects is Mr. Harper's equal. Neither is gregarious and neither is charismatic. Instead, both are studious, cerebral, disciplined and stubbornly principled - and both are outsiders.
Mr. Dion - more accurately, Dr. Dion - may not seem like an outsider. He is the scion of a Quebec academic family and is himself a former professor. He is the only one of the final four who has served in the federal cabinet (under two prime ministers). However, the party establishment backed Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae in this leadership race, and on Saturday some Dion supporters were dispatched to wave homemade placards reading "Support Dion - the anti-establishment candidate" to underscore the point. It is clear that this is how the new leader sees himself - as the little guy from the Université de Montréal. He is the insider-outsider.
Why did Mr. Dion win? In the end, Liberal delegates were unwilling to embrace Mr. Ignatieff, a public intellectual and Johnny-come-lately whose public musings on the Middle East and Quebec's "nation" status effectively sabotaged his candidacy. Mr. Rae, by contrast, had political experience and was election-ready. But the Liberal delegates weren't ready to say yes to an ex-NDP politician who had said no to the Liberals multiple times, as recently as the last election. Even one yes from him might have elicited a yes from them.
Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae had better organizations than Mr. Dion. They had stronger ex officio support. And Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae delivered better speeches than Mr. Dion on Friday night. But Mr. Dion had the advantage of being a Liberal, and something he said resonated deeply with delegates: that for more than 10years he had "delivered for my primeminister, my party and my country."
It was a reminder that in the bitter aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Mr. Dion displayed uncommon courage as he assiduously disassembled the legal and political basis of the secessionist argument, and thereby earned the perpetual wrath of some members of his own "nation." With respect to national unity, he saved the Liberals and probably the country. This was in part, then, about Liberal party loyalty.
It was in large part also about the political skills of Mr. Kennedy. The former Ontario education minister and director of the country's largest food bank is a perfect compliment to the new leader. Even more than Mr. Dion, he represents Liberal renewal. While Mr. Dion is a man of ideas, Mr. Kennedy possesses the practical organizational skills and fierce political instincts that will be vital if the Liberals are to win the next election.
That election will be decided not on force of personality, but on the basis of ideas and a very different vision of the country. Mr. Dion spoke of "a generous and ambitious vision" that he claimed contrasts with a Conservative vision that is narrow and selfish. However, the Liberals have served notice that the central idea, what Mr. Dion termed "the mainissue of the century," is the threat posedby global warming. It is a high-stakesstrategy.
The burden of evidence suggests not only that climate change will damage the environment, but that it could contribute to the impoverishment of humanity for generations. The Liberals' challenge, however, is how to bring about immediate reductions in emissions without contributing to the short-term impoverishment of Canadians, especially since past Liberal governments committed Canada to goals within the Kyoto Protocol that the country couldn't hope to realize, and set it up for a mighty fall. Even as environment minister, Mr. Dion could not come up with a credible way to negotiate between long-term global gain and immediate domestic pain.
There is growing public concern over environmental sustainability, but whether that concern will translate into votes when the rallying call is, to quote Mr. Dion, "energy-efficient products" is another question. Experience has shown that the environment is the number-one issue with voters - until something else comes along. With a slowing economy and war in Afghanistan, there are plenty of potential something elses facing Canadians. In particular, Mr. Dion should recognize the breadth of the Liberal Party by tacking to the economic centre and taking a step back from the pinkish tinge of his collective policies. If he doesn't convince middle-class Canadians that he understands their present needs as well as their future ones, he could marginalize the party, give Mr. Harper breathing room in the centre and imperil Ontario's critical suburban ridings.
But today is Mr. Dion's day to savour. His breathtaking victory is a compelling reminder that, as was said in his moment of triumph, "everything is possible in Canada - even the greatest of dreams."

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