Here's what candidates must do in their speeches today

Contenders have one final kick at the can and they must make the best of it

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, December 1, 2006

If great speeches won leadership conventions, Joe Greene would have been prime minister of Canada.

Greene, known to some as the Ottawa Valley Lincoln, electrified the 1968 Liberal convention when he stepped aside from the podium, hooked his thumbs under his lapels, leaned into a stand-up microphone, and spoke without a single note. To this day, Greene's extemporaneous speech remains the gold standard of excellence for convention oratory.

"Greene switched effortlessly from French to English throughout the speech," Martin Sullivan later wrote in Mandate 68, his seminal biography of Pierre Trudeau. "And when he finished there were few dry eyes in the arena. The applause was deafening."

In the voting the next day, Greene finished sixth out of eight candidates, and went to front-runner Pierre Trudeau, who eventually won on the fourth ballot.

On the other hand, a bad speech can cost a candidate important momentum on the eve of the vote. Paul Hellyer bombed at the 1968 Liberal convention. Brian Mulroney's address to the 1976 Conservative convention was more like an acceptance address and fell flat. And Kim Campbell nearly lost the 1993 Tory convention to a young Jean Charest because of a speech that included such lines as "this convention is about process." Uh-huh.

Charest, meanwhile, brought his campaign bus right onto the convention floor, and brought the crowd to its feet with stump lines like "the Bloc is a crock." But it wasn't quite enough to overtake Campbell, whose 48 per cent on the first ballot made her inevitable on the second.

The candidates' speeches at the Liberal convention this afternoon and this evening will unfold even as delegates are voting on the first ballot. For the final four - Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe, Scott Brison and Martha Hall Findlay - the speech is their moment, the reason they stayed in. For the front four - Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy and Stephane Dion - the speeches are their last best opportunity to define and differentiate themselves from the other contenders. It's a chance to light a fire, and become the talk of the town going into tomorrow's second-ballot shakeout.

The eight candidates will be speaking in reverse order of their standing on the ballot, from last to first place. In other words, Findlay will be speaking first and Ignatieff last. In a debate, having the last word is generally considered an advantage. At this convention, Ignatieff will have to sit through seven other speeches before making his own.

What do the front four contenders need, or at least hope, to achieve in their speeches? All will speak of the politics of hope; they'll equate Liberal values with Canadian values; and they'll promise to rescue the country from the Tories and their doctrinaire right-wing agenda. And all of them must convey an idea of the country and where they would take it.

Stephane Dion is the candidate who has grown the most in this campaign, in terms of his performance as well as delegate support. He needs to demonstrate a sense of humanity, and a sense of humour. He needs to keep his stridency in check, and should make sure he has a comfort level with the English parts of his speech. But Jean Chretien had a terrible vocabulary, let alone accent, in English, and overcame both with his passion for Canada. Dion has the conviction. Can he demonstrate the passion?

Gerard Kennedy is still a blank page for many in this party. He has run a food bank. He has been education minister in Ontario. He's still working on his university degree, as well as his French. He can insist he's not the candidate "of next time" as John Turner put it in 1968. Actually, he is very much a work in progress. But he has emerged as the candidate of the Trudeauites, and can position himself as the champion of one Canada, and one Canadian nation. But this is a wedge issue, and if Kennedy goes there, part of the room will be with him, but a large part will not. He has strong presentational skills, and can use the occasion to make a good impression on the country, as well as the party.

Bob Rae has two major challenges confronting him. First, he is from another party. Second, in that other party, the NDP, he was premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995. On his watch, the provincial debt more than doubled, more than one million Ontarians were on welfare, and more than 100,000 jobs left the country's industrial heartland. But Rae has another story to tell, that of someone wiser for the experience, who remained involved in the public policy process as head of an Ontario study on post-secondary education, chairperson of the Forum of Federations and the Institute for Research on Public Policy, as well as head of the Air India Inquiry. He has successfully reinvented himself. He is the best speaker in the field, the most experienced politician, and a rassembleur, someone who brings people together.

Michael Ignatieff doesn't need to prove he's the smartest guy in the room. We already know that, and it can be very annoying. But he does need to demonstrate he knows this country and understands how it works. That's his challenge, and his opportunity.

 
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