Monday, January 01, 2007

Surprise election of Stephan Dion as Liberal leader sets the stage for battle of the policy wonks

Surprise election of Stephan Dion as Liberal leader sets the stage for “Battle of the Policy Wonks”

As those of you who are unfortunate enough to be addicted to politics already know, in a stunning upset that shocked pundits and politicos alike, Stephan Dion went from fourth place to winner at December´s Liberal leadership convention.

Such up the middle scenarios, although always discussed in leadership races – particularly amongst those backing non leading contenders - rarely occur. Sometimes it can re-invigorate a party, as Pierre Trudeau´s Liberal leadership victory did in 1969 and sometimes it can lead to electoral disaster as was the case in the mid 1980s when the bumbling Bob Skelly ended up as leader of the BC NDP.

Stephan Dion´s biggest challenge will be to gain fluency in English. Although there are over 7 million Canadians that list French as their first language there are almost 22 million Canadians where English is their primary and often only language they converse in.

What Dion brings to the table is a passionate concern about the environment and support for the Kyoto Accord. Although this will make it difficult for the Liberals to win any seats in Alberta it should help them win seats in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. In fact Dion´s green agenda may eat significantly into NDP support and will certainly ensure that the federal Green Party remains irrelevant.

In electing Dion as their new leader, the Liberals have also upheld a very old tradition of alternating between French and English leaders. Although Paul Martin was an MP from Quebec he was seen as being an Anglophone, albeit a thoroughly bilingual one.

The question is, after such a short hiatus, are Canadians ready to elect yet another Prime Minister from Quebec? That is certainly what we have primarily been governed by throughout most Canadians lifetimes. It seems to be what Quebecers want and what people, especially those living in Ontario, are willing to support in return for keeping Quebec within Canada.

But there is another dynamic that has been set up by Dion´s election as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. We now have the top two political parties in Canada both being led by policy wonks. For all of you out there who have long decried the fact that elections tend to be more about style than substance, we may actually end up having an election that is about issues rather than photo ops.

Conservative Party Leader and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an economist who has never shied away from getting into the substance of an issue. Stephan Dion is a professor who has a similar fondness for policy detail. Will this engage the Canadian electorate or bore them to tears? It remains to be seen. But with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper leading only a minority government, we likely won´t have long to wait. If Dion´s election gives the Liberals any momentum in the polls, or if conversely he falters, you can bet that we will be into another federal election in 2007.

Mike Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at