Wells: Why Dion was not a leader, in his own words

The 8:30 a.m. tactics meeting got too big. So he began a secret 7:30 meeting. Guess what?

This week’s lesson, not a new one, is that a failure of introspection can be fatal to a political career. Stéphane Dion told a roomful of reporters on Monday what a very long list of Liberal MPs and failed candidates had tried to explain to him in the week since he lost the election. Again and again at the door, campaigning Liberals were told voters didn’t like Dion. Why? Because he kept talking about a carbon tax.

Well, that’s pretty straightforward. Listening, I was actually impressed with the candour of those ex-candidates. Must be hard to tell a defeated leader that he was the problem.

Except it’s not hard at all if the leader won’t hear. Dion received all his visitors’ petitions and decided the voters had been mistaken. Or bamboozled. The Conservatives spent so much money distorting him that Canadians never had a chance to think straight. To know Dion would have been to love him. To understand the carbon tax—sorry, Green Shift—would have been to adore a thing of beauty.

This complacent reading of events does Dion no honour. And because he is determined to stick around for a while, assigning himself important tasks for which he has shown no aptitude, the professor’s eagerness to grade himself on a generous curve remains an obstacle to improved Liberal fortunes.

Before I light into him some more, I want to emphasize—partly so you can decide what to make of my own judgment—that I have made no secret of my admiration for Dion for more than a decade. In the 2006 leadership race I rated him more highly than his competitors. And in the recent campaign’s final week I saw glimpses of a more impressive retail politician than Dion had ever been before. There is so much to like about him.

But leadership is a particular set of skills. Not everyone has them. One is an ability, which begins with a simple willingness, to play the hand you’re dealt. Grumbling about your hand is the eternal hallmark of the mediocre player. Dion shows no courage when he admits he “failed” and then proclaims, in the next breath, that his failure was imposed on him by foul adversaries. No courage and no inclination to learn and apply hard lessons. He knew his opponents were foul, by his lights, when he asked for a mandate to beat them. He went about it badly from the outset.

Two of the arenas of his incompetence were party organization and parliamentary performance. Which is why so many Liberals were discouraged to hear he will stick around to reorganize the party and lead his party in the Commons.

Senior Liberal party staff knew in 2006 that the party’s fundraising apparatus was out of date. That’s why they passed a new constitution at the same convention that made Dion leader, no mean feat given hidebound vested interests. They had outside experts prepare an elaborate strategy for modernizing the fundraising process. Detailed blueprints for change were delivered to Dion the day after he became leader. He ignored them. Not because he had a better idea but because he had none.

Since he became leader the party has gone from $5 million flush to $6 million in the hole. It has had two presidents and three executive directors, none a professional organizer or fundraiser. Dion has had two chiefs of staff and four communications directors. At party fundraisers he would speak for an hour and chase every rogue particle of enthusiasm from the room. He runs an office the way a faculty chair runs a faculty, which is to say that he cannot in any serious way be said to run it at all. He compensates for an absence of organization by requiring every decision be made by him, multiplying delay instead of dividing it.

In the Commons his shaky English was only part of the problem. The greater part was a relentlessly tactical approach, an obsession with picking a scandal out of the morning’s newspapers and getting onto the evening news with it. No story was treated differently from the last or the next. No day was different from yesterday or tomorrow. If the Harper Conservatives could get away with one tone, snide dismissal, it’s because the Dion Liberals only ever went at them with one tone, howling indignation. This inability to see beyond question period was not Dion’s making but he did nothing to question it.

Here, too, Dion’s special knack for organization made things worse. An obsession with tactics made the 8:30 a.m. tactics meeting the only one worth attending. The more the party’s assorted factions grumbled, the more the loudest grumps—Paul Zed, Denis Coderre—were invited to tactics to shut them up. The tactics meeting quickly became useless. Ralph Goodale, the House leader, soon improvised a secret “real” tactics meeting at 7:30 to cook the outcome of the big fake tactics meeting afterward. Guess how long secret tactics stayed a secret. Guess how happy the outer circle was when they learned there was an inner circle. Guess how likely Dion is to fix all this if he believes his only problem is “Conservative propaganda.”

Dion says the televised leaders’ debates finally gave him a chance to shine for Canadians. But he will never debate Harper on TV again. Instead he has given himself jobs he was never good at. He could begin by admitting, at least to himself, that he was never good at them.