Wayne O'Leary

Canada's Liberals Roll the Dice

Delegates at Canada's Liberal party leadership convention, held in Montreal on the first weekend of December, confounded that country's political experts by selecting a relative unknown to head the official parliamentary opposition. Stéphane Dion, a quiet-spoken, francophone ex-cabinet minister and onetime college professor, garnered a fourth-ballot victory that was as unexpected as it was remarkable. Left in the dust were two comparative giants on the Canadian political scene and the ex officio party leaders who had backed them.

At the outset, all eyes were on Michael Ignatieff, the brilliant, Trudeauesque expatriate intellectual, who had returned to Canada from the US a year earlier, and Bob Rae, an articulate veteran politician and one-time NDP (New Democratic Party) premier of Ontario, who joined the Liberal Party in 2002. Ignatieff was the front runner throughout the pre-convention maneuvering and entered the contest with 29% of the committed delegates, followed by Rae with 20%. The dark horses, Gerard Kennedy and Dion, lagged behind with 18% and 16%, respectively.

The only question among the assembled press was whether Rae's clear advantage in experience and ring savvy would offset Ignatieff's charisma and prevent a stampede to the favorite reminiscent of 1968's Trudeau Mania. Then a strange thing happened, and it holds lessons for America's Democrats in 2008. The delegates refused to follow the script; they opted instead for contrarian change. The catalyst was when, following the second ballot, Kennedy, who had fallen to fourth, threw his support to Dion and gave the Quebec M.P. unstoppable momentum.

Kennedy, an exuberant speechmaker -- he had perhaps the gathering's best line, an observation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives got their ideas from "the Republican discount store" -- is a coming star. That rarest of politicians, a pragmatic idealist, he left college during the recessionary years of the early 1980s to found food banks in Edmonton and Toronto before finding his true calling. Kennedy will eventually lead the Liberal Party, but not just yet. In the meantime, he frustrated the smart money and played king-maker on the national stage.

What happened, and why should Americans care? Ignatieff and Rae, the odds-on favorites, lost partly because both were regarded as outsiders or interlopers. Ignatieff, a seminal thinker and international scholar, whose resume includes publishing 16 books and teaching at Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford as well as writing for the New York Times and commenting for the BBC, carried the burden of having lived outside his native country for most of the past 30 years. Rae was a political turncoat who left his original political home, the democratic socialist NDP, because of doctrinal disputes after 24 years spent in that party.

Nevertheless, as it turned out, those career choices were not their ultimate Achilles' heels. Of more immediate consequence were their positions on contemporary issues. Ignatieff was a prominent supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq whose intense dislike of Saddam Hussein's human-rights record led him to swallow whole the specious WMD rationale offered up by the Bush administration. He also accepted in principle American demands that Canada agree to a ground-based North American Missile Defense Shield on its soil and endorsed Washington's questionable ends-justify-means approach to fighting terrorism. These positions, especially his Iraq stance, proved highly unpopular with the Liberal rank and file.

Bob Rae carried a different collection of baggage into the convention. His weakness revolved around his enthusiastic acceptance of globalization and open markets, his uncritical support for Israel, and his endorsement of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's centrist Third-Way policies as an international model for progressive politics. These beliefs, which precipitated Rae's departure from the NDP, followed him into the Liberal party. While they endeared him to much of the party's establishment wing, they raised hackles elsewhere.

In the end, lgnatieff and Rae, perhaps the most talented and accomplished contenders for the Liberal leadership, were caught on the wrong side of the issues and the wrong side of history.

Like some prominent prospective nominees of the Democratic party for 2008 (Hillary Clinton comes to mind), they were trapped by their recent past positions and by the fact that public opinion was rapidly moving away from them on such things as preemptive war and free trade.

There was also a related generational factor at work. Dion and Kennedy were 51 and 46, respectively, while Ignatieff and Rae were approaching 60 years of age. In a cruel twist of fate of the sort that often determines political success or failure, the pre-convention favorites discovered that, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's metaphorical boats beating futilely against the current of time, events had already passed them by; their sparkling resumes and ringing endorsements were suddenly irrelevant. Members of this country's Democratic establishment who cling stubbornly to outdated positions on Iraq and globalization may well discover the same thing two years from now.

Which brings us to Stéphane Dion. The new Liberal leader is lacking in charisma and has at best a mediocre command of the English language. On the other hand, he's decent, likable and intelligent, no inconsiderable assets in politics. And he's set forth a promising platform emphasizing social justice, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability -- the environment is his pet cause -- that encapsulates current Liberal thinking. On Quebec separation, he's a strong federalist, and on foreign policy, he's a healthy skeptic of interventionism and an opponent of the US role in Iraq.

Dion's triumph sets up an impending contest for control of Canada's government that will be fascinating to watch. Two bilingual policy wonks with PhDs (Dion in sociology, Harper in economics), one center-left, the other center-right, will vie for power on the hustings sometime next year. At the moment, Dion appears to have the edge; his reawakened party, tied in the polls with the Tories a few weeks ago, has surged to a six-point lead in the wake of the leadership convention. The Liberals could be embarked on an important new chapter in their long, storied history as Canada's natural governing party -- or, if their latest makeover fails to jell, they could just as easily find themselves back to square one within a few months. It's all on the shoulders of a mild-mannered, unimposing Quebecker who has always been underestimated.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2007

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