Stéphane Dion and the Liberals just had a week from hell

Since the Quebec by-elections, it's been one disaster after another for the party

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, October 1, 2007

The last two weeks, beginning with the drubbing the Liberals took in the three Quebec by-elections, have not been kind to Stéphane Dion. He can only hope he is bottoming out and that he can avoid a fall election. He needs time to stabilize a very bad situation and regain his footing.

The by-election losses have triggered a series of nasty recriminations within the Liberal Party, and raised larger questions of Dion's management skills, his judgment and whether he can be sold to the voters.

By-elections are normally an occasion for voters to send a message to the government. On this occasion, they sent a message to the Liberals. The Liberals didn't just lose, they lost an historic Liberal seat in Montreal by 20 points to an NDP insurgency, and lost their deposit in two off-island seats where they polled in single digits.

And this, in the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chrétien, led by another Quebecer named Dion. The best that can be said is that Dion has done nothing to improve the bad situation he inherited, one of a great political brand that has fallen on hard times in this province.

It would be as if the Conservatives lost one of the safest seats in Calgary, and lost their deposits in two rural Alberta ridings. How would Stephen Harper explain that? He couldn't. Neither could Dion, though he acknowledged in a series of candid interviews that the buck stopped with him.

Then last week, things only got worse. First, La Presse published a CROP poll that showed the Bloc Québécois at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent, the Liberals at 19 per cent and the NDP at 17 per cent in voting intention among Quebecers.

When you drilled down on the numbers, they got even worse for the Liberals. Among francophones, the Bloc was at 37 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent, the NDP at 18 per cent and the Liberals at 11 per cent. In Quebec City and east, the key 418 area code, the Liberals are in single digits.

The Conservatives and Liberals have traded places as the competitive federalist party against the Bloc. It's also bad news for the Bloc, which has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the Libs, but that's another story line. In the 50 Quebec ridings off the island of Montreal, the Liberals are completely out of the game, except for a few seats in the Gatineau and the Eastern Townships. Essentially, the Liberals are now a Montreal party, and an English Montreal party at that.

Then, as Dion was heading into a Quebec caucus last Wednesday, The Gazette's Elizabeth Thompson broke the story that Marc Garneau was standing down as a possible candidate in Westmount.

That would be Marc Garneau, the astronaut, Canada's first man in space, and an authentic national hero in both English- and French-speaking Canada. How many parties have candidates with high schools named after them?

What was Dion's problem with Garneau? Apparently, he didn't appreciate that Garneau, as a supporter of Michael Ignatieff in the leadership race, piloted a resolution on Quebec as a nation through a Quebec general council meeting last fall, leaving Dion with little choice but to support a similar resolution when Harper proposed it to the House. Having reserved Westmount as one of several ridings where he would designate the candidate, Dion refused to name Garneau, who lives there. Garneau told Thompson it wasn't personal, he just had to get on with his life.

The blowback in the rest of the country was immediate and it was huge. English-speaking Liberals might not understand Quebec, but they understand that Garneau has 100-per-cent name recognition, in Quebec and across the country. Moreover, there isn't a nicer person in the world, and everyone knows it. For the Liberals to be losing a candidate of that stature is a devastating comment on the leader's interpersonal skills. "I don't comment on possible candidacies, I announce confirmed candidacies," Dion said. There's never any humility around when you need some.

But there was worse to come. Another high-profile candidate dropped out. In the South Shore riding of Brossard, formerly held by Jacques Saada before the Liberals lost it to the Bloc last year, former Brossard mayor Paul Leduc decided to pass on the nomination. There you are, another possible candidacy the leader needn't comment on.

And here's the cherry on the sundae. National director Jamie Carroll, reportedly a Dion loyalist and appointee, told a closed-door meeting that "if I have to hire more Quebecers, does this mean I have to hire more Chinese?" Shades of John Crosbie, whose 1983 leadership campaign came apart with the comment that he couldn't speak French, but then he couldn't speak Chinese, either.

Jimmy Breslin once wrote a book about these guys. It was called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

 
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