Monday, December 04, 2006

Sometimes It's Nice To Be Wrong

So, St├ęphane Dion beat the odds, the pundits and the corgis' prediction to take the Liberal leadership. No doubt time will tell whether this was a good choice for the Liberals, but I am feeling more comfortable after the weekend than I was before it.

Mr. Dion is in many ways like Stephen Harper. He's quiet, not at all charismatic, smart, policy oriented, and so forth. In a race between two such men, neither of whom might engage many people on a 'gut' level, the incumbent has a huge advantage - people have had time to be comfortable with Harper, the sky has not fallen in and people will choose the known over the unknown most of the time.

Mr. Dion's biggest issue, the environment, is also arguably one of his weakest. Not only did he preside over a 33% increase in greenhouse gas emissions as Liberal environment minister, but the plan he released during the leadership race (a) 'borrowed' heavily from the Suzuki Foundation, and (b) pretty much matches the Conservative's Clean Air Act. A Liberal leader saying one thing and doing the opposite might be a hard sell, with so much of that kind of thing still fresh in peoples' minds.

Dion is part of the old Chretien and Martin teams, and represents less of a break from the past than the Liberals might have wanted. It shouldn't be too difficult to dig up clips of him from Adscam days defending his party, for example.

In choosing Dion, most people's third or fourth choice, the Liberals follow a pattern of defeated government parties; I can see a comparison with the Conservative Party in the UK going with William Hague after John Major. You pick a compromise, or unity, candidate. He's not really anyone's first choice, but he's inoffensive. Often he has a 'break the mold' kind of buzz around him - aka 'generational shift'. And in the end he loses the next election and steps down, albeit leaving a party in much stronger shape and with the confidence to choose a real leader next time around.

Once the honeymoon is over and the polls settle down from their post-convention fever, we'll see what Mr. Dion is made of. Will he be Stephen Harper the second? Or will he be the between-election rebuilder of an opposition Liberal party?