"He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day."
Ever since Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes uttered these words in 338 B.C. after fleeing a battle in which 3,000 other Athenians were killed by the victorious Macedonians, many a modern day politician has held them dear to his heart.
Federal Liberal leader Stephan Dion certainly did when he blinked in what was the face of almost certain personal political annihilation if he had defeated Stephen Harper’s Conservative government over the recent throne speech.
With some polls showing the Conservatives as high as 40 per cent in public support and with the Liberals trailing the Bloc Quebecois, the Conservatives and even the NDP in Quebec, Dion knew that if he had forced an election the net result would likely have been handing Prime Minister Harper a majority government and seeing himself become one of the few federal Liberal leaders in Canadian history to never have the honour of serving as Prime Minister of Canada.
The current Liberal malaise is hardly just Mr. Dion’s fault. His predecessor Paul Martin earned through his indecisiveness the political nickname of “Mr. Dithers.” In selecting safe non-controversial leaders the Liberals have learned that these safe choices also tend to be boring choices.
Worse still Prime Minister Harper rather than imploding, as many Liberals initially expected, has instead grown more comfortable in the job of being Canada’s Prime Minister. Harper is not afraid to make a decision and whether you agree or disagree with the decision at least you know where he stands.
I for one think that whoever is advising Harper with regards to drug policy is either stuck in the 1950s or smoking crack. But his decision to appoint former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley to head up a commission looking into Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was a political masterstroke.
Rather than an election in 2007 as I previously predicted, it now seems certain that the earliest we will see a federal election is in 2008. I expect that both the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois will lose seats, while the Conservatives and to a lesser extent the NDP will gain seats. The outcome will either be a strengthened Conservative minority government, or a Conservative majority government.
In either event that would spell the end of Stephan Dion’s time as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Waiting in the wings is Michael Ignaeteff, an individual who seems all but certain to replace Dion as leader.
But in having blinked and run away to fight another day, does Dion have a comeback strategy? At present it seems unlikely. Instead it is Prime Minister Harper that is running the table.
Harper is putting forward a number of popular measures such as lowering the GST another percentage point that are sure to win over the support of Canadians who are labouring under a punitive amount of taxes and an ever increasing personal debt load.
At this point what Dion and the Liberals have to avoid is political irrelevance. If they end up advocating a tax, regulate and spend agenda then there is already another political party, the NDP, which is doing that. If they want to focus on environmental issues, well all of the other political parties are doing that too.
In short Mr. Dion and the Liberal Party of Canada have to actually articulate a vision beyond that of “we are the naturally governing party of Canada.” If they do not then it is the Conservative Party of Canada that will end up governing Canada for much of the 21st century.
Mike Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at www.mgcltd.ca