I haven't been blogging about my preferences in the Liberal leadership race, but that doesn't mean I haven't had them. The main problem has been that my preferences were really too complicated to turn them into a nice tidy little post. Yes, I'm a partisan New Democrat, but I'm also a concerned Canadian who wants what's best for the country, and a strong believer in a diverse spectrum of partisan choices led by public servants who care about more than just their own careers. So this has meant balancing three major factors, in the following order:
What's best for the country. Like it or not, choosing a Liberal leader is about choosing somebody who has a pretty good chance of becoming the next prime minister. This means that someone whose favoured policies aren't appalling would certainly be a plus, as would someone who's more interested in serving the country than in personal gain.
What's best for the NDP. The ideal scenario would, of course, be a Liberal leader who could take a whole slew of votes away from the Conservatives without taking any from the NDP. I don't think that candidate existed--at least not in this race--but someone who had a good shot at eating into soft Conservative support and who at least wouldn't seriously damage the NDP would also be acceptable.
What's best for the Liberals. It sounds strange coming from a partisan New Democrat, but I really do care about the renewal of the Liberal party. I believe in true voter choice above all else, and the "ill health" of one of the three major parties has seriously limited voter choice for those on the centre of the spectrum, sending an awful lot of them into Stephen Harper's waiting arms. Also, if the Liberals don't fix some of the things that ail them, and they get into power anyway, that's not good for any of us.
So now that we know it's going to be Dion going up against Harper and Layton in the next election, I'd like to evaluate how he stacks up on those three factors.
I have thought for some time that, of all the major Liberal leadership candidates, Dion would be the clear choice in terms of what was best for Canada. He has enough integrity that Harper was comfortable consulting with him before bringing forward his Quebec as a nation motion, and Layton, too, referred to him as "a man of principle and conviction" in the middle of a partisan convention. His policy preferences, as well, while not ideal, would be a welcome change from the direction Harper is taking us in.
In terms of what was best for the NDP, Dion wouldn't have been the top pick (that would have been Ignatieff), but I've long suspected that he would pose more of a threat to Harper and Duceppe than to Layton, and this poll seems to suggest that as well.
Finally, there are also at least a few advantages to Dion in terms of repairing the damage to a rather broken Liberal party. He's someone who served in both the Chrétien and Martin cabinets, and there was certainly plenty of evidence at the convention today that he can start to smooth over the rifts from their feud.
After I interviewed Dion back in September, I expressed a number of concerns about him. The most damning of these was about his inability to account for either the broken Liberal policy promises or the ubiquitous sense of Liberal entitlement:
Given the undeniable fact of the booming oil and gas industry, though, it's all the more essential that we get someone into the prime minister's office who's willing to follow through not just on voluntary targets, but on tough regulation. Dion's proposed plan would go a long way toward that, but all we know is that the last time he had the chance to regulate, he didn't go nearly far enough. What I needed to hear from him during this interview was an acknowledgement that previous Liberal governments should have done things that they didn't do, some explanation for why they didn't do those things, and an outline of why a Dion-led government would be different. His answers fell short on all of those points. [...]My concerns about these issues have only grown since that interview. While he was vaguely cagey and defensive with me in September, at the leadership debate in Montreal a month later, he positioned himself outright as the defender of the Liberal record. If you wanted renewal of the Liberal party--REAL renewal, with all the soul-searching and accounting for mistakes and reforms that would come with that--Dion was never going to be your man. And relatedly, while Ignatieff was willing to step in during that debate and admit that the Liberals "didn't get it done" on the environment, Dion's response was to get visibly angry and counter that Ignatieff "didn't know what he spoke about." This leaves me with little evidence that, when push comes to shove, Dion will actually be willing to implement the policies he's laid out so nicely for us.
Certainly recovery from the Chrétien-Martin civil war and presenting a positive vision for the future would be two huge steps toward repairing the damage to his party. But I think most of us on the left would tend to agree that it doesn't get at the things that concern us most about the Liberals. The new Liberal leader, whoever he ends up being, is also going to have a tough job repairing the public trust. This violated trust comes not just the sponsorship scandal, but also from the broken promises I addressed in my last point, and perhaps most importantly, from a governing style that made them appear arrogant, complacent, and like they thought they were entitled to a majority government with no real effort. I tried to give Dion every opportunity to address these issues, but he didn't.
My fondest, pie-in-the-sky wishes:
I'll end, though, on a positive, even optimistic note. I have made no secret of the fact that I think coalition governments are Canada's future. In the long run, they're really the only way out of the minority government muddle--they would work in Canada in the same way that they work in most of the world's democracies, providing stability without forcing a diverse political spectrum into two imperfect choices. And being the idealistic pragmatist I am, I have also made no secret of the fact that my preferred coalition government would consist of the NDP and a genuinely renewed Liberal party. While I realize how unlikely this is, given the animosity between the two parties and their extremely varied traditions, I think having Dion as the Liberal leader may well represent the only opportunity to realize that possibility in the near future.
Yes, Layton and Dion have very, very different ideas on policy, but they're also both pragmatic thinkers, and they may well be able to work together well enough to compromise in the case of a Liberal (or for that matter, NDP) minority win in the next election. Layton's official response to Dion's win was to congratulate him and to say that he "looks forward to debating with him and getting to work on the issues that are important to today’s families." That's about as positive a message as he's had for any member of another political party since, well...since he called Dion a "man of principle and conviction." I certainly don't expect either Layton or Dion to pull any punches during the next campaign, and that's as it should be. But when the votes are all counted, it is my great hope they'll be able to put aside their differences and do what's truly best for this country. Our antagonistic political culture may make it unlikely, but it could still happen if the voters and these two leaders wanted to make it happen.
All in all, Canada, the NDP, and the Liberals could all definitely have done a lot worse today. Let me echo Layton's congratulations to Dion, then. It was a fine race, well fought, and while I still hope he will manage to address some of the concerns I have over the coming months, I sincerely wish him well.