|Richard Lautens/Toronto Star|
|Dion on the leadership campaign trail in 2006|
In journalism, we have two definitions for our work: news and new news. You get it. When you don't have a lot of the latter, you spin the former like a crazy person, and that's what we're getting on the prospects of a fall election as we sink deeper into the primordial muck of the pre-Olympic silly season. The only bona fide political new news so far is the Sept. 8 date of three upcoming by-elections.
Political gossip — er, analysis — has centered around a couple of themes, one being that Stephen Harper was afraid of going to the polls against Stéphane Dion if the Liberals were surging in the polls and would delay Parliament to avoid it. Sure thing. Sounds to me like Harper's style. Plus, we now know there will be no Throne Speech.
The next idea, this one with some legs because it's Dion, posits the reverse: the prospect of the mandatory leadership review weighs so heavily on Dion's mind, it will be the key factor in determining his choice of "the good moment" in which to bring the Conservatives down. He will be too scared to go in the fall with a review looming the next spring, unless the party is sky-high in the polls. Without rehashing the whole thing, the bottom line of that scenario has Dion doing anything to avoid the dread review on the heels of a losing campaign and, therefore, will delay triggering an election until 2009, or just wait it out until Harper's prescribed date in the fall of that year. Even if he bungles the campaign, says the theory, he should have more breathing room before the next leadership review in which to try and rally support.
"Hah!" snorted a Dion strategist loudly, before laughing some more, when I asked him if that's how the leader was thinking. "That's the last thing Dion would take into consideration," he proclaimed, and I think he's right. Having spent a fair amount of time interviewing Dion and researching his life to write a biography last year, I agree. I'm not arguing it's necessarily the politically smart thing to do; some may even call it naive not to factor in the leadership review. But he won't, I'm sure of it. It's just not how the guy thinks. He's not particularly cunning about his personal interests. Look at his bull-in-the-china-shop history in Canadian politics, a period during which he succeeded by sheer grit and the most bizarre circumstances. Inspector Clouseau-on-the-Rideau.
When has he calculated the risk to himself? Jamais. He was the Péquiste in the orthodox federalist household, the lone Canadian defender during the 1995 Quebec referendum, the aloof salesman for unity in a federal Quebec caucus braying for his head and the wispy moderator who struggled in 2005 to save the Kyoto Protocol against a heavy-duty American lobby in Montreal. He consistently made what appeared to be foolhardy choices by any rational standard and through some kind of klutzy, serendipitous charm made them work.
I can't tell you when the LIberals will go for a non-confidence vote. I can tell you, however, how Dion will make up his mind. In choosing "the good moment" (memo to his English teacher), he certainly will consider where the party is in the polls. He's not an idiot and, as a political scientist and former professor of public administration, he reads polls for the thrill. He won't jump if the numbers look bleak but, as other politicos do, he'll blame it on trumped-up reasons, such as Canadians don't want an election or it's time to focus on jobs, not votes. He'll take the measure of the country's mood and, like everyone else, he'll be watching to see what happens on Sept. 8, notably in St. Westmount-Ville Marie where formidable NDP candidate Ann Legacé-Dowson takes on Liberal star Marc Garneau. Another Outremont and it's the bottom of the ninth for Dion.
Then, he will listen to his gut and decide.
However, it would be a mistake to buy the theory he's burning the midnight oil in the Laurier Room at Stornaway, calculating the effects of a losing campaign on his chances in a leadership review. There is simply no evidence to suggest his mind has ever worked to assess personal gain in such a calculating manner. In fact, Dion would probably do just the opposite if he saw a personal risk — plunge in at the worst time because he has determined it's the right thing to do. For better or worse.
None of the above makes Dion a better politician. But it was my sense at the 2006 Liberal leadership convention that, among the reasons Dion won, the image of him as anti-politician was a big plus. That may no longer be the case.