Wells: Learning the art of politics

Dion held his own in the debates. Can he keep the momentum?

Stéphane Dion still loves to talk. Clearing 20 minutes for an interview at the front of his campaign plane on Monday was a cinch. The Liberal leader had ready answers for every question and apologized profusely when time ran out. “If you have more questions, just ask. Don’t hesitate.”

The moment was propitious, because Dion’s young and inexperienced staff was starting to realize that he might soon get a chance to run more than his mouth. After two years of getting sand kicked in his eyes, Dion had performed well in the leaders’ debates and then started to make some gains in the polls. Or more precisely, Stephen Harper was posting losses. After being cast as fortune’s fool for so long, could Dion finally capitalize on an opportunity?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First that interview.

I asked about his 30-day, five-part “plan” for the economy—meet the premiers, meet the heads of regulatory agencies, meet private-sector economists, release a fiscal update, speed up some infrastructure spending. That’s a lot of meetings, and some ribbon cuttings. What would it change, concretely? What would it make possible that a sitting prime minister wouldn’t already have done?

“Not acting is not an option,” Dion said. “There’s only one head of government claiming he mustn’t act; it’s Stephen Harper. The Europeans act, the Americans act, Harper criticizes them and does nothing.

“We’re going to turn over every stone and see whether, in our regulations, there’s something we can do to better protect savings and mortgages, pensions and jobs. We’ll accelerate investments in infrastructure and manufacturing to create economic activity. We’ll have an economic and fiscal update very quickly, to put everything in place so we can protect ourselves as well as possible. And we’ll bring the provinces and territories in to coordinate our action.”

But surely a Canadian government can’t do much against a global banking crisis? Dion wouldn’t have many levers to work with.

“The government does have a role to play, but you have to believe in the role of government,” he said. “Why have conservative governments generally been poor economic managers? Fundamentally it’s because they don’t believe in the role of the government to help the population. So they show up with an ideology of deregulation, which exposes us to the worst excesses. We see this in the economy, in food safety. It’s always the same. Always the same.”

Then the segue. Harper isn’t Dion’s only problem. Jack Layton is bidding, harder than ever before, to make the NDP competitive with the Liberals for Opposition status or—why not dream?—power.

“Mr. Layton doesn’t understand the market economy,” Dion said. “In the debates he said his first step would be to cancel $50 billion in corporate tax cuts. The capital market is expecting those cuts. If we cancel them, the stock market will be harder to control than ever.”

Harper began the campaign by mentioning at every stop that he’s an economist. I put the obvious implication to Dion: that in hard times, the leader who’s needed is the only economist in the race.

I will perhaps not shock you when I report that Dion was unimpressed. “First, his team is very weak. He has a minister of finance who told the investors of the world not to invest in Ontario. He should have shown him the door right away. If he didn’t, it’s because he has no other finance minister at hand. He says he’s an economist, but he’s taken steps that defy all economic logic. There is no economist who will say he’s made good decisions on tax matters. He hasn’t been managing as an economist, he’s been managing as a politician looking for votes and worried about the next poll.

“He’s spent more than any other politician, but he has built nothing. Productivity has declined in Canada for nine months. What has he done to improve productivity? To strengthen universities, researchers, private-sector research? He’s governed to please, not to build.”

I asked Dion about the news from Afghanistan. A senior British commander, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, says that war isn’t winnable—that no definitive military victory is possible and that it’s time to talk to the Taliban. What does Dion think?

“It’s for the Karzai government to determine how to make a hostile force more peaceful. We’re there to offer more security and more justice. I never said it wouldn’t be difficult. I’m sure it is. We’re not facing an enemy army in uniform, with a white flag ready to go up if it goes badly for them. We’re fighting terrorism. Terrorism is always difficult to fight, and it’s not victory it’s looking for, it’s victims.

“So if this general is taken aback by what he sees on the ground, I’m not astonished. But we Canadians have signed on until 2011 to do everything we can to provide security, to train their soldiers and police, their judges, to build more schools and hospitals.”

But Stephen Harper surprised a lot of people in this campaign by calling not just for Canadian troops to pull out of Kandahar in 2011, but for our NATO allies to hand the whole defence mission over to the Afghans. When we talked, Dion was still having trouble getting his head around the way Harper’s tune has changed on Afghanistan.

“If that’s what he said it’s lamentable, because the same man was saying precisely the opposite a few months ago. That we should stay as long as the job isn’t done, whatever that means. So if somebody could change his mind like that, according to short-term interest, and say something completely different from what he’s been saying, then he can change back too. Once in government he could say, ‘Something’s come up, we have to stay.’ You can’t believe a man like that.”

Columnists get twitchy if we talk about policy for too long, so I changed the subject to strategy. Dion had bet just about his entire career on four hours: the French- and English-language leaders’ debates. For two years he was confident that everything would change once voters got a chance to hear him and the other leaders. Now does he think the bet was wise?

“The debates were a big moment. Why? Because for once Canadians saw in their living room, not the caricature Mr. Harper constructed, and not the media filter. So it was an important occasion for me. We’ll see whether it makes a difference.”

In Dion’s entourage, some of his staffers have lately dared to hope that their man is (belatedly!) learning some of the elements of the politician’s craft. I put it to the man himself: is Stéphane Dion becoming more political?

“Every day, I’m sure. I’m like good wine: I get better. I think I’m better known. I’m not the caricature people have made of me.”

In the home stretch, with the Conservatives falling in the polls but Dion having trouble establishing himself as the sole alternative, a question arises. What if the NDP and Liberals, between them, elect more MPs than the Conservatives? Would Dion consider a coalition with the NDP? If Harper is as bad as he keeps saying, would he have a right not to consider a coalition?

Dion didn’t exactly hold out an olive branch. “We’re in this to win. And Mr. Layton made the mistake of presenting a program that’s not realistic. He could have come up with a Third Way program like Tony Blair. It would have been harder for me. But he has an old-style socialist program. I’m saying to voters who supported the NDP, we share the same progressive values.”

But then he would say that, before the fact, because his interest is in herding skittish New Democrats to his Liberal banner. Straight talk at this stage about what might come after the election would undermine that play. The same considerations, no doubt, affect Dion’s answer to my next question. Lots of prime ministers needed two tries to become prime minister, I said. Stephen Harpe
r and Lester Pearson both lost their first campaign as Opposition leader. Both hung on to win a second election. Would Dion want to do the same? Would his party let him?

Dion only smiled. “I’ll win the first time.”

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