The Liberals' failed gamble

As the ballots of the 40th federal election were counted Tuesday night, it was clear that the Liberal gamble on Leader Stéphane Dion had not paid off.

When Canada's Liberals chose Stéphane Dion as their party leader, it was a desperate gamble that a man who was a quiet intellectual could be transformed into an aggressive political animal.

After all, it had worked 40 years ago when the Liberals of the day chose a newcomer by the name of Pierre Trudeau. Could magic not strike twice?

As the ballots of the 40th federal election were counted Tuesday night, it was clear that the Liberal gamble had not paid off. The Liberals came close to holding their 2006 share of the popular vote but, disastrously, they lost a quarter of their seats in the Commons.

The Liberals will have mixed feelings as to their next move. The party treasury is empty and may not be replenished until the party acquires a new leader and a new direction.

The two most obvious candidates to succeed Dion, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, are both in their 60s. They cannot wait in the wings indefinitely.

Pressure to leave

If those eager for change dominate debate in the party backrooms, there will be pressure on Dion to step down gracefully before the messiness of a leadership review. Shrewd bettors will be putting their money on a leadership convention for the Liberals within the next year.

All that, of course, will depend on the mood of the next few weeks, in particular the mood of the still relatively unknown man who is the party leader.

Although in private, Dion is reported to be stubborn and autocratic, in public, whether in debates or on television, he is palpably decent, whatever the occasional difficulty of his English.

In many ways, he looks like the caricature of an agreeable nerdy professor, but even his naiveté can be attractive, including his conviction that "Canadians want to know me" and his boast that his weakness and his strength are to be underestimated.

Not Stephen Harper

Dion carried two signal successes into the leadership. He had been Jean Chrétien's minister of intergovernmental affairs, when he championed the Clarity Act that gave the federal government a role in deciding the rules of any future referendum on independence. And he had been Paul Martin's minister of the environment, when he won particular distinction as chair of the United Nations Climate Change summit.

But would those successes translate into success in an election? The Liberals had almost two years to groom their candidate out of academe and into the world of politics.

What gave hope to the Liberals was the reluctance of the Canadian public to embrace Stephen Harper. The Conservative leader led his party in three elections in the space of four years; he humbled Paul Martin and then beat him, but Harper failed to capture the imagination or affection of the electorate.

The imperative of politics

Nobody ever accused Harper of being too nice a guy — although it's arguable that being a nice guy is never what counts with voters. However, the Conservative leader is obviously smart and competent — witness his high poll ratings for leadership, leaving Dion far behind, trailing New Democrat Jack Layton and never close to matching even the standing of his own party.

Although both Harper and Dion have the reputation of taking advice badly, Harper at least obviously understands the imperatives of politics. The same cannot be said of Dion, who is at best a reluctant participant in political fisticuffs.

Dion was the one minister who was to spend any time with Chrétien at Harrington Lake and the then prime minister obviously regarded him as a loyal student. So it would not have been unreasonable to think he might have acquired some political street smarts from the boss.

However, Dion apparently learned none of those smarts.

The measure of Dion as leader is that he failed to make any headway against Harper with an electorate that found fault with the Conservatives on a variety of fronts.

Masters of the economy

Harper even managed to tag the Liberals with the suspicion that they would take the economy into deficit, when in fact it was the Liberals under Chrétien and Martin who made deficit a dirty word, not just for the federal government but for all governments in Canada.

Toward the end of the 2006 campaign, a group of old Toronto Liberals tried to persuade Martin that the Liberal campaign should concentrate on the economy and the Liberals' past success as masters of the economy. Much the same kind of effort was made this year by many of the same people, but met with little success.

Dion's principal failure is that he did not reinforce the party identification of those who were declared and committed Liberals, and he was not a natural leader who could attract those who were not committed already.

The barometer of Dion's electoral appeal is that the Conservatives built their campaign almost exclusively on Harper — just look at the multitude of times his name and photograph appeared on the party's shiny platform document. The Liberals would not have dared to do anything similar.

When he won the leadership, Dion received less than 18 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. He emerged on top because of the way the convention split between Rae and Ignatieff.

There is little in the election results to suggest that his roots are now deeper in either the party or the country. And that would suggest that Dion's political career will soon be over.