The Commons: Stubborn Stéphane

Neither cowardly nor spineless, this man is most certainly a mule

The Scene. If nothing else now, let there be no more suggestion that Stéphane Dion is a wimp. A wuss. A pussy cat of a man. Indeed, if it’s animal metaphors you traffic in, he is neither the rat his sovereigntist opponents once thought him, nor the spineless jellyfish (an amorphous blob drifting along, prone to stinging well-intentioned swimmers with sudden tax hikes) these Conservatives have exhaustively made him out to be.

No, Mr. Dion is most certainly a mule. Stubborn, steadfast and undaunted at the prospect of suffering and burden. Surely there is no more appropriate description of the man we presently see before us.

He strode, this day, into the House looking altogether confident. Or at least not crushed. Which was, all things considered, unexpected.

A day earlier, the persistent tikes that staff the government’s communications wing had announced the imminent arrival of new adverts meant to disparage the latest and so far greatest (if only by default) of the Liberal leader’s big ideas. The particulars of when and how the ads might run, not to mention the accuracy of the claims made therein, are the subject of some debate. But no matter. Various media outlets had space to fill. And so the clips of a talking oil stain were sent to the top of Sunday afternoon’s news.

And not content then to let a few dozen young Tories in yellow shirts carry the message through the streets of downtown Ottawa (poor kids made to sacrifice their self-respect in 40-degree heat), the Conservatives then sent a trio of backbenchers up before Monday’s Question Period to prove their literacy.

“Mr. Speaker,” said Brian Storseth, doing right by the people of Westlock-St. Paul, “the Liberal leader’s carbon tax has no friends.”

“Mr. Speaker,” reported Jeff Watson on behalf of Essex, “it is not even Halloween, but the Liberal leader is offering Canadians a major trick.”

“There is one party that will not make seniors and Canadians on fixed income pay more for gas, heat and electricity,” proclaimed Rick Dykstra, pride and joy of St. Catharines. “That is this party.”

Here it was easy to expect the leader of the opposition to opt for another topic entirely. Perhaps the latest evidence of Maxime Bernier’s poor judgment. Or maybe the government’s apparently dangerous changes to immigration policy (more on that in a bit). Anything to change the subject.

But no, here came Dion, trudging onward, head-up and head-long into an inevitable whipping. “Mr. Speaker, recently I called for an honest and much needed national debate on carbon pricing to fight climate change. Instead of taking this seriously, what do the Conservatives offer Canadians? They offer a cartoon, a talking grease spot,” he charged. “When are the Conservatives going to stop insulting Canadians and offer a real plan to tackle climate change instead of cartoons and a campaign of lies?”

The government did not then send the Minister of the Environment to respond, nor even the ministers of finance, industry or transport. Remaining seated too was the all-purpose government House leader. No, to articulate the government’s approach to climate change, the Conservatives sent up Jason Kenney, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism. A man whose environmental bonafides would seem to begin and end with the green tie he wore to work this day.

Kenney, to his debatable credit, is an accomplished yeller of invective, as worthy a seatmate to John Baird as you will find. And so he and the Liberal leader then engaged in a rather heated exchange of accusations, Dion twitching and pointing furiously in the secretary’s general direction.

It was, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn, rather inelegant. But matched against the likes of Kenney on an issue such as this, Dion appeared at least well-positioned. And though it was Michael Ignatieff who offered the day’s finest phrase (“When will the little grease spot start telling the truth?”), Dion surely did well to assert himself. To not, say, run from the room with tears in his eyes, muttering about the unfairness of it all. Such is, perhaps, the value of lowered expectations.

Still, rare is the victory, even of the small and moral variety, that comes without caveat for this 11th leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Promptly at 6:30 p.m., as storm clouds rolled into the capital (fans of pathetic fallacy take note), the speaker called in the members. There was to be a vote on the government’s budget, those immigration changes buried within. It was, of course, a matter of confidence.

Awhile after the bells began to ring, Mr. Dion ambled into the House, smiling slightly but seeming a bit distracted. The seats to his immediate left and right were empty. He sat and, after exchanging pleasantries with Derek Lee, stared contemplatively up at the gallery.

A day before the Conservatives had unleashed their latest round of mockery, the Globe had brought news of a perhaps more painful note. Seems nearly every Liberal of any consequence—Ignatieff, Goodale, Rae, McCallum, Redman, LeBlanc, Godfrey—has lobbied the leader to bring down this government and bring about an election. Seems the leader is unwavering in his refusal to do so.

Back in the fall, when he wanted an election, they said no. Now they’ve come around, only so has he—leader and party circling each other in the most bewildering of stand-offs.

Asked via email to peg caucus support for a summer campaign, one Liberal MP guessed 70 per cent. Another member, perhaps more cautious, projected a mere 66 per cent. But Dion was unrelenting, apparently to the point of dismissiveness. Indeed, the weekly gathering of the party braintrust, normally held each Monday morning, was moved to Tuesday, apparently to avoid any further debate ahead of this night’s vote.

Waiting then for the Speaker to take his vote, Dion found himself metaphorically, literally, physically and otherwise, very much alone. When the call came for objections, he buttoned his jacket, stood up straight and was counted. A mere dozen other Liberals followed suit.

“Twelve Liberals!” cried a voice from the other.

“Twelve Liberals!” concurred another.

He was treated to a hearty Bronx cheer when he rose, but otherwise the government side spared him the usual heckling. Of course, they didn’t really have to say anything. And for once in their collective lives they recognized as much.

A page delivered a letter of unknown purpose to Mr. Dion’s desk. He signed it, then stuffed it back in its envelope. The vote tallied, he crossed the aisle and delivered the package to the Prime Minister. The two exchanged handshakes and a few seconds of awkward and rare conversation.

Dion then quietly made his exit.

Out in the foyer, Maurizio Bevilacqua, one of the few Liberal frontbenchers present, paused to take questions from the few reporters attending to this anticlimax. “Canadians do not want an election right now,” he explained. He spoke hopefully of the “Liberal vision” for Canada and the party’s apparently bookmarking this moment for future change. Indeed, he said, this is “a good day for the Liberal party.”

It was a courageous performance. Though if he truly believes that last bit, he should be immediately committed.

Hanging around the scrum was the NDP’s Olivia Chow, nothing exciting a Dipper quite like the prospect of undermining a Liberal.

“It’s a horrible day for immigrants,” she countered. “It’s unbelievable.”

Then, of course, the kicker. “Mr. Dion,” she said, “is running and hiding.”

That is perhaps the thing about being a mule in this business. For sure, there is a certain pride to be taken in the qualities of determination and single-minded purpose, in moving forward without regard for that which might tempt those of lesser certainty. To march where no one else in their right mind seems eager to tread.

But then one man’s mule is another man’s ass. And often that is a distinction quite easily confused.

The Stats. The environment, eight questions. The economy, six questions. Natives and Maxime Bernier, four questions each. The military, three questions. Language rights, Brian Mulroney, gas prices, Omar Khadr, free trade and the Olympics, two questions each. Agriculture and Zimbabwe, one question each.

Peter Van Loan, eight answers. Jason Kenney and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, six answers each. Chuck Strahl, four answers. Deepak Obhrai, three answers. Dave Anderson, Peter MacKay and James Moore, two answers each. Josee Verner, Gerald Keddy, Greg Thompson, Gerry Ritz, John Baird and Lawrence Cannon, one answer each.

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