The StarPhoenix, Sunday, Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Northern Sask. fiasco highlights Dion's weakness
It is somewhat ironic that at the very moment Liberal
Leader Stéphane Dion became dangerously trapped in an
uncharted Saskatchewan minefield, he was in fact half a
world away -- in a war zone.
Over the last year, the federal Liberals have
complained repeatedly of the bully campaign by Prime
Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to paint
Dion as a weak, bumbling and indecisive leader.
Dion's inability to lead his way out of a
constituency leadership contest over the past weekend
was just one more stumble from a man who has set off
more mines than a Second World War mine-flail tank.
After imposing his will on the clearly unwilling
Liberals of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Dion
appears determined to do to this one-time Grit
stronghold what he did to the sure Liberal Quebec riding
of Outremont, which is now run by New Democratic MP
Even a political neophyte could not have helped but
notice Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River was a
delicate situation. Once a bastion of Liberal strength,
over the last decade it has swung through all three
major national parties -- even having the same candidate
represent different parties in two consecutive elections
and run as an independent the next time out.
In 1997, Rick Laliberte took the riding for the NDP,
only to cross the floor to the Liberals whose banner he
successfully carried in 2000 before he was tossed from
the party. He then ran as an independent, but only
served to split the vote enough to allow Jeremy Harrison
to win for the Conservatives. Harrison lost to Liberal
Gary Merasty by a mere 67 votes in 2006.
Under these tricky circumstances, Dion opted to pull
from his bag of tricks the option to deny Liberal
members their democratic right to choose their own
candidate and appoint former provincial NDP cabinet
minister Joan Beatty as his chosen candidate.
Although Dion's people are arguing the appointment
was made at the behest of Saskatchewan Liberal strongman
Ralph Goodale, it makes little difference when one
considers what it means to the perception it creates
about Dion's leadership. A weak leader is particularly
prone to taking bad advice -- a particularly weak leader
then hopes to buy forgiveness by blaming the adviser.
Still, there is some beautiful symmetry in how the
wheels were blown off the candidate selection process in
this particular case.
Dion's leadership would never come into question if
it wasn't for David Orchard, who was elbowed out with
Beatty's appointment. The two-time Tory leadership
candidate made a spectacular switch to the Liberals and
brought more than 100 Dion delegates to the party's
leadership convention, where the former political
scientist rose through the pack to steal the show.
Orchard used his 39,000-name Rolodex to secure enough
votes to turn Dion from a footnote to the leader who is
now demonstrating just how bad that decision was for the
Liberals. It can't but bring smiles to the faces of
those in Orchard's former party.
But the symmetry doesn't stop there.
Last year, Goodale made a good deal of hay in
knocking the Conservatives for trying to get Bill
C-31(on improving voter identification) through the
House. The process, as he pointed out, created "the
potential loss of vote for nearly a million Canadians,
especially rural Canadians."
It was imperative, the Regina MP insisted, that the
law be fixed soon so that the good people of
Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River didn't lose their
It would be nice to conclude that Dion's decision to
ignore the basic democratic right of the people of
Northern Saskatchewan to choose their own representative
had some redeeming qualities -- such as the claim that
by doing so the Liberal party could pick a woman, who is
Native and a good communicator in order to raise this
constituency's profile in Canadian politics.
But Beatty is not so rare as all that. The Liberals
already have Tina Keeper, a Cree who used to star in the
hit CBC show North of 60, sitting so far back on their
benches that she's almost closer to her Manitoba riding
of Churchill than to the Liberal leader's chair.
If Dion wanted to promote Beatty's chances in
Northern Saskatchewan, he should have shown up
personally to endorse her and lent his experience as an
educator to help the party's riding executive more
firmly establish itself, rather than take away the
rights of the people.
But perhaps Northern Saskatchewan was just too
dangerous a location for Dion to visit. That might
explain his foray into Afghanistan on the very weekend
the mines were going off in this province.
"Democracy cannot be maintained without its
foundation: free public opinion and free discussion
throughout the nation of all matters affecting the state
within the limits set by the criminal code and the
The Supreme Court of Canada, 1938