"Humility" is the word used by Liberal MP Denis Coderre to describe party leader Stéphane Dion's public self-flagellation after the Liberals' disastrous performance in Monday's federal by-elections. "Humiliation" might more accurate.
It was almost painful to watch Dion beat himself up, first in an interview on Radio-Canada television on Wednesday evening, then in front of reporters after a speech in Montreal the following day.
He said he recently realized he has an image problem among his fellow French-speaking Quebecers, which makes him the last person in the province to realize this. He had allowed himself to become the victim of a "caricature" created by his adversaries. So, speaking of cartoons, he would "bare myself" to allow people to get to know the real Stéphane Dion.
The problem is that first impressions are lasting ones, and after more than a decade in active politics for Dion, Quebecers think they already know him well enough, merci. The only way for a politician to change his image successfully is gradually, over a long period of time, and preferably out of public view, as former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa did in self-imposed European exile after his defeat in 1976.
Dion doesn't have much time to change the public perception of him before the next federal election, and it's hard for a well-known politician to change his image suddenly without seeming phony or desperate on top of his existing problems.
And in Dion's case, those problems go beyond the simplistic explanation of his sponsorship of the Clarity Act, which sets Ottawa's conditions for negotiating Quebec secession. In the general election the year after the adoption of the act in 1999, Liberal support in Quebec increased significantly in terms of both seats and vote share. The Clarity Act bothers sovereignists, but it doesn't appear to bother most other Quebecers.
While their leader's personal unpopularity is a major handicap for the Liberals in Quebec, it's not the only one. In last year's general election, before Dion became leader but after the sponsorship scandal, the Liberals received only 21 per cent of the valid votes in this province, their lowest vote share ever. But Dion's unpopularity is one reason the Liberals have not yet been able to recover from the scandal.
Monday's federal by-election results, following those of the provincial general election last March, confirm that for the first time since Confederation, the federal and provincial Liberal parties are both mired in third place in support among French-speaking Quebecers.
And the unpopularity of one reinforces that of the other, by association. Like two drowning men clinging to each other, the two Liberal parties pull each other down.
If it's any consolation for members of the federal party, its prospects might not be as bleak as those of the provincial one. While the federal Liberals have never fully recovered the dominance they enjoyed in this province before the Trudeau government imposed a new constitution on Quebec without its consent in 1982, they did show improvement in three consecutive general elections until the sponsorship scandal erupted in 2002.
So they've shown relatively recently that they can rebound, and they might do so again, once the memory of the scandal fades.
The provincial Liberals also have an unpopular leader, lost votes in the last two general elections and in the last one received their smallest vote share since Confederation.
Both parties appear to be suffering from the recent decline of political polarization in Quebec over the sovereignty question, and to have abandoned to other parties their former positions as strong defenders of the interests of French-speaking Quebecers within Canada.
But the provincial Liberals have been losing support longer than their federal counterparts. Their share of the eligible vote - that is, of the the total number of registered voters - has decreased in each of the last five general elections, reaching only 23 per cent last March.
That decline was under way well before Jean Charest became leader in 1998. So reversing it might not be as simple as changing leaders.
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