Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A lefty's interview with Stéphane Dion

It was early August when I was first approached by Stéphane Dion's leadership campaign and asked whether I would be interested in doing an interview with him. It was early September (the night before I left for the NDP convention, in fact) when we finally managed to find a date and time that worked for us both. The scheduling difficulties were frustrating on both sides, but they also gave me a lot of time to think about how I wanted to approach the interview, as both a blogger and as a Blogging Dipper. These kinds of interviews are usually done by political journalists who gather information and then offer up relatively dispassionate analyses of it. What we bloggers tend to be, though, is editorialists: we take facts as presented by others, and re-analyze them in light of our own interpretations. Any candidate willing to do interviews with bloggers knows this, and is in fact looking for precisely that kind of editorial interpretation of the answers he gives. So an approach in which I pretended to be completely free of ideological taint was right out.

In the end, though, I decided it would be best not to approach the interview not as a partisan New Democrat, but as a member of Canada's left. There were two main reasons for this: one, because I wanted my conversation with Dion to be cordial rather than antagonistic; and two, because I was apparently hand-picked for this interview because of the perception that I'm a fair-minded partisan, and I wanted to assure his campaign that their trust in me hadn't been misplaced. As such, I viewed my main objective not as tripping Dion up, but as giving him the opportunity to answer the hard questions lefty Canadians might want to ask a Liberal leader in general and him in particular, and seeing to what extent he was able to answer them. My open letter to the Liberals had already outlined the things I think lefty Canadians will need to hear from Liberals if they want to gain support from enough of us to win the next election, so I took that as a basis for my questions, which centred around a search for:

1. A positive statement of what he stands for that involves good, progressive ideas (as opposed to simply repeating over and over again how scary Stephen Harper is).

2. Reason to trust that he would actually implement those good, progressive ideas. Given the Liberals' track record on keeping their promises, this would be an issue with any of the candidates, but unfortunately for Dion, it goes double for someone who was actually part of the last government, and triple for someone who had primary responsibility for the (arguably sorely lacking) environmental record of that government.

3. An acknowledgement that the pickle their party is in right now is of their own making (rather than scapegoating the NDP or someone else), but then moving beyond unproductive self-flagellation to some clear statement of what that pickle currently consists of, and some ideas about how they plan to get out of it.

4. A glimmer of an interest in reforming not just his own party, but also the broader political scene. Democratic and electoral reform would be an excellent start to this, but I was also hoping for some recognition that our toxic political culture needs an overhaul if we really are going to accomplish some of the incredibly difficult things we need to do over the next few decades. Political parties need to be looking out for Canada, not just their own selfish interests, and a Liberal leader who realizes this would be a great thing.
The final verdict, post-interview: decidedly mixed.

Starting with the positive, he gets full marks on the first point: good, progressive ideas, phrased positively, instead of just trying to convince me I should be scared of Stephen Harper. The environment, or "the reconciliation between the people and the planet," is clearly the chief plank of his platform, and he considers accomplishing this task "the problem of the century." He hopes to do this by "bringing together the capacity to help the planet and to help your wallet."

But these aren't just vague pretty words; he's also got details to back up the plan, which consists of tenets like granting an accelerated capital cost allowance to industry when they use less water and less fuel (and not when they don't), regulating the oil and gas industry to decrease their emissions by 11% between now and 2012, offsetting the damage they do by requiring them to invest in environmentally beneficial projects outside their own production, regulating against pollution with the aim of eventually bringing standards up to those of the European countries, and giving tax breaks to consumers for home and car purchases that are more energy-efficient. While some Conservatives have slammed him for nabbing a lot of his ideas from the David Suzuki Foundation, I don't quite see what the fuss is about. Personally, I wish a lot more politicians were willing to "steal" their environmental ideas from the David Suzuki Foundation (and so, it seems, does the David Suzuki Foundation).

As for the "Stephen Harper is scary" meme, it didn't come up once. Dion did criticize Harper's ideology (he has "narrow and selfish ideas" that "look at the past and not at the future") and his specific policies (cancelling the previous government's plans that attempted to meet our Kyoto targets was "shameful" because it amounted to "wasting one year" at a particularly crucial time for the environment, and moving the two-years' extension to the Afghanistan mission without sufficient discussion or information was equally awful, especially in light of the fact that he "blackmailed the House with the promise of an election" to convince people to vote in favour of the extension). But Dion is clearly running much more on his own vision of Canada than he is against Harper's, and that's a refreshing change from the Liberals' last campaign.

When it comes to the second point, however--that of giving me reason to trust that he would actually implement his ideas if he were prime minister--I was far less convinced. It's true that Dion is in a disadvantage over the other leadership candidates in this respect, because he doesn't get to emerge as a fresh, new face that's going to wipe the slate clean. As such, he's pretty much forced into running on his government's record, and that's tough. But if he's going to convince people that he's got not only the best vision for Canada, but also the cojones to actually put it into place, he's going to have to come up with a way of explaining why his party's government (in which he was a longtime member of Cabinet) didn't implement his current ideas during the twelve years they were in power. When asked directly about this, Dion tried to push the blame onto the current government for cancelling the plan he himself introduced in April of 2005. I certainly agree with him that they shouldn't have done that, but the question remains why a) that plan wasn't as tough as what he is now proposing (an internal examination of Liberal climate-change spending obtained by the Globe and Mail in 2005 admitted that their focus on encouraging voluntary action by industry had produced "extremely disappointing results"), and b) why they waited until the final year of their government to make even tentative efforts on climate change.

To be fair, he didn't just blame Harper, but also addressed the fact that Canada has a more difficult task than most countries do in terms of lowering greenhouse gas emissions:
[Canada has] a booming economy, especially in oil and gas where emissions are going up. In 1990 oil and gas was almost not existing as an industry, and now it is a milk cow of the country. We have no other countries in the Kyoto world that are in the same situation. Oil and gas industries in other countries are flat or decreasing, and in Canada ours is booming. It's why we have a lot of difficulty to limit our emissions and to keep them under control.
Given this 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.

The questions surrounding the third thing I was looking for--a willingness to address the problems in the Liberal party--also produced mixed results. To his credit, when I asked him why he thought the Liberals lost the last election, he had a fairly sound analysis of the situation that didn't attempt to shove the blame off onto Jack Layton:
I think after twelve, thirteen years in power, you are very vulnerable to any things you have done. Even though you have done good things as a government, if you have made some mistakes, well, people feel they have a chance to change them. And despite the fact that we built a strong economy, we put the nation at work, we did great things, we also made mistakes, and people thought that they had seen enough of us. Mr. Harper came with a good campaign with very simplistic ideas, easy to understand. He got some more seats than us--not a lot, but it was enough to give him a minority government.
He doesn't quite acknowledge the role of the Liberals' out-of-touch campaign during the last election, nor does he spell out what mistakes he thought his government had made, both of which would have gone a long way toward making him sound more credible. But it was a straight answer to my question that didn't try to mince words--something I know many real journalists have had a hard time getting out of other politicians.

The real problem with not acknowledging the details of the mistakes he thought his government made, though, is that it made his thoughts on how he expects the Liberals to bounce back sound rather simplistic:
What we need to do now to start to come back is two things. First, to protect the unity of our party. The race up to now has been very respectful, and I want that to continue that way. I am confident that I will win, but at the same time I have a lot of respect for the others. The second point is to choose a good vision for the country. A good action plan. I will do my best to convince my fellow Liberals that the best plan is the one that I am proposing, to make Canada part of the solution and to reconcile the people with the planet.
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. When I asked him about entitlement, he got defensive about accusations of corruption, and when I clarified that I wasn't asking about the sponsorship scandal, he talked about the fact that most of his fellow public servants are honest, hardworking people and members of the public shouldn't be so cynical about them. He was preaching to the choir on that last point, so I certainly don't disagree with him--but I was asking about entitlement, not corruption or cynicism, and he never did address what I was actually trying to get him to answer. Whether this means that he wasn't willing to talk about his concerns about Liberal entitlement in an interview with a blogger (disappointing, but understandable), or that he doesn't recognize it as a problem (a real cause for concern), I don't know.

When asked about how he feels the Liberals have done in opposition so far, though, he was much more direct:
Oh, I think we need to learn the job. We spent so much time in government, and being in opposition is not easy. There are reflections of this, despite the good work that our interim leader is doing. I think we have improved over the weeks, and the end of the parliamentary session was better than at the beginning. One mistake we made was to be divided about the shameful motion that Mr. Harper decided to have about the two-years' extension to the motion in Afghanistan. We should have had a whipped vote for everyone to vote against this motion, while at the same time suggesting to the House to have a parliamentary review of the file in order to have a vote in October or November on the merit of a extension of two years of our mission. We should have voted against that as a party and as the official opposition. I'm very disappointed that this was not done. We are also up against two parties that are so professional about being the opposition, the NDP and the Bloc, at the same time that we are in a race. We have ten candidates, and many of them are MPs, and many MPs are working hard in our own team. And when they are working on the race, they're not working as hard for the leader and for our work in the House. It's a long race--my suggestion had been to have the convention in September, but they compromised with the suggestion of March and set it for December. It's almost a year now. So this is an additional difficulty for the party, having a race at the same time as being an effective official opposition.
This was probably the answer that came closest to giving me all of what I was searching for. I actually don't agree with everything he says here, but that matters less than the fact that he was willing to be self-critical and say, unprompted, what specific things he thinks his party could have done better. That takes a great deal of integrity, not to mention a willingness to stand up to any repercussions there might be within some quarters of his party as a result of saying things like this. I respect him immensely for that. And I have to give him credit for the rather clever backhanded compliment about the NDP and the Bloc's roles as "professional opposition," too--touché!

I'll come around now to the fourth and final thing I was looking for: an interest both in democratic and electoral reform and in moving beyond that to changing Canada's toxic political culture. I had read previously in Miles Lunn's blog that Dion had been positive about the German Mixed-Member Proportional voting system (which combines our current system with compensatory seats that would come from some sort of party list, making the result proportional), so I began there. He confirmed that yes, he is personally in favour of a reform toward a system that would involve two-thirds of the seats being elected as they are now and a further one-third through "compensatory proportional representation," adding that he would want a "five percent threshhold in every province" (meaning that a party would have to attain at least 5% of the vote in any given province in order to gain seats there). In fact, he says that he once wrote a book chapter with University of Saskatchewan professor and electoral systems expert John Courtney, outlining the details of the proposal he favoured. All this was delightful to hear, especially after my disappointing encounter with Gerard Kennedy, who didn't even seem to know what proportional representation was. Also, the reason Dion gave for his support for this reform is one of my own main reasons for favouring proportional representation: he wants to "guarantee that each region of our country is not marginalized," i.e., to make it possible for, say, a Liberal government to have MPs elected in areas where they tend to be weaker, so that one region of a country doesn't dominate another.

For all this positive talk about electoral reform, though, he's clearly not willing to push it himself. "That is a debate that I cannot impose as a candidate in this race," he said, because "it's something that we will need to have a parliamentary review to look at." All he is willing to commit to as prime minister is "an open debate with the people discussing it and coming with their solutions and their suggestions and we'll see if a consensus may come from it." This is similar to what Paul Martin promised but didn't deliver on, and it falls far short of a real federal-level citizens' assembly on electoral reform similar to the ones they had in B.C. and currently have in Ontario, followed by a cross-country referendum. To me, this suggests that Dion wouldn't be willing to give the voters the power to make real decisions on their electoral system, which worries me.

Much more of a concern, though, is the fact that he doesn't seem to have thought beyond the theoretical details of his favoured reform to the changes that it would necessarily make in our political culture. When asked about what he would do if his party attained a minority of seats under his leadership, he said "I'm confident that we can win a majority" in three different ways. In fact, he regards the fact that a his favoured system would produce few, if any, single-party majority governments as "a problem of the reform." When asked directly about his openness to forming a coalition with another party, he ignored the question entirely, and when I later pointed out that the electoral system he favours has almost always tended to produce coalitions in other countries, he said that "Canada is not accustomed to having coalitions, and I'm not sure that Canadians are ready for that." This is precisely the kind of thing that gave me pause about my own party's adversarial rhetoric surrounding their new aim of forming a government--if you're in favour of some form of proportional representation, you can't at the same time be against government coalitions. This is a simple fact, because any form of proportional representation would make it very difficult for any one party to attain a majority in Canada, and going on forever with the current status quo of single-party minority governments is entirely untenable. Rather than viewing the end of phony single-party majority governments as a downside, why not see it as an opportunity to transform our political culture into one where there would be true cooperation between parties in government? It works in Europe, so why not here? I continue to find it incredibly disappointing that no politicians in Canada are talking about this aspect of electoral reform, even those who supposedly favour it.

In addition to the questions I was most interested in hearing the answers to, I also asked Dion about several things that have come up elsewhere, including David Orchard's endorsement of him and the high cost of the Liberal leadership convention. He seems to think that Orchard will help him both in the West and in rural areas, not only because it will increase direct delegate support, but because "it shows that western Canada can choose a Liberal from Quebec as their leader." Further, he's unconcerned about the differences between Orchard's positions and his own, because he has "no secret deals, no obligations," and people who vote for him for Liberal leadership are "voting for a free man." On the high cost of his party's convention, he seemed torn: on the one hand acknowledging that $995 really is a rather exhorbitant delegate fee, but on the other hand saying that "this party needs money" because they "need to learn that with the new rules, you cannot go to big CEOs and then have the money to run a race." He mused that perhaps "next time [the vote] should be by the mail," but also spoke of the disadvantages of this: there would be "no convention with all the excitement you have on the floor," and there would be few incentives to campaign in the north of Alberta or rural parts of Québec when you could just stay in Montreal and convince a few more people to vote for you there.

Finally, as a linguist (yes, 'tis my day job), I'd like to make a few remarks about his English. While the test given to all the candidates pegged him as a fluent bilingual, others have said his English is a liability, mainly because of his accent. I'd actually say that both of those things are true. While he makes many small grammatical errors, those are easy to overlook, and he never struggles to express himself in English, which gives him a huge advantage over many of the anglophone leadership candidates in French. He is, however, somewhat harder to understand than, say, Jean Chrétien was, which may well be a problem in terms of getting his message out to monolingual anglophones. I don't think this is enough of a reason for the Liberals not to choose him as leader, but (and I say this cringingly, because given how much of our identity we carry in the way we speak, "accent reduction training" fairly horrifies me) it may be something he might want to work on.

In sum, I have to say that my one-on-one conversation with Stéphane Dion epitomized how I tend to feel about the "good" Liberals out there: very, very mixed. At my own party's convention, Jack Layton made a sharp contrast in his speech between his unadulterated criticism of the other top leadership candidates and his almost complimentary words about Dion, describing him as "a man who is, if I may say so across the partisan divide, distinct from his principal opponents in being a committed Canadian and a man of principle and conviction." I did see those qualities in him in the interview: he's remarkably willing to speak his mind much of the time, and he clearly has a positive vision for how he wants to lead both his party and his country. He also seems at least somewhat open-minded about controversial things like electoral reform and changing how his party chooses its leaders. But in the absence of some serious reflection on what went wrong in the past and why, exactly, we should believe that future Liberal-led governments would be any different, I remain skeptical that his vision of the future would actually come to fruition if his party were to make him leader. This isn't something to focus on for now, of course--at the moment he has to be more concerned with speaking to people who are already convinced of the Liberal Party's superiority. But he will definitely have to address it much more thoroughly if he wins.


West End Bob said...

Once again you are making it easier for the "future Canadians" in blogland to gain an understanding of Canadian politics . . . . Thanks, we appreciate it!!

Oxford County Liberals said...

As you might know, I've come out on record as supporting
this version of Mixed-Medium Proportional Representation that the Globe and Mail published details about and endorsed in their editorial of May 2005.

However.. because that system doesnt necesarily remove the possibility that a mjaority government can still occur on a regular basis, some of the PR purists criticize the model.

Myself.. I think its the perfect compromise between those afraid of too much minority governments and those who want fairer representation of people's votes.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

west end bound,

Happy to help!


I suppose that makes me a "PR purist," then, because I too don't think the Globe's proposed electoral reform would go quite far enough. I'm all for majority governments (I agree with you that minority governments are not the way to go), but only if they've actually been elected by a majority of the voters. In most other countries, this means governments of multiple (usually two) parties, who then compromise between their two visions, and work together to make policy.

It's worked in European countries (including Germany, who pioneered the electoral system Dion favours) for decades. The New Zealanders are finally starting to get the hang of it after switching to Mixed-Member Proportional in 1993. A reform to some version of proportional representation, followed by a shift to majority coalition governments would be a tried and true, stable solution to pretty much everything that ails both our electoral system and our political culture. What are we afraid of?

Oxford County Liberals said...

Well, I dont think you can go with such a radical overhaul of the system without facing resistance from not only the mainstream political parties who know it may hurt their chances of getting majorities but from voters who are used to this systen that we've had since Confederation and will be afraid to change if the system being proposed is a radical overhaul.

Even this system that I've tried advocating faces resistance from a lot of Liberal or Tory bloggers who feel it will perpetuate constant minorities. While I can argue that point til the cows come home, just think of the resistance to systems who advocate greater PR then this.

As for advocating only having a majority government who has a majority of voters.. that's pretty well impossible. You can check thru Canadian history since the 1900's how often thats happenned - particularly since we've had a multi-party system established. You'll find it doesnt happen all that often.

Dion is right about the other argument he makes; multi-party coalitions just dont happen in Canada. There is I believe one instance... in World War I when the Tories and the english-speaking members of the Liberal Party (Unionists) combined.

Nowadays, the ideological diffrences in the multi-party system in a such a diverse country as Canada are deep and bitter.. and I highly doubt that parties would set aside their partisan differences. They can barely do that in times of minority governments.

If that's going to be your main selling point, I can almost guarantee you PR will never see the light of day. The big parties will never go for it. Y

You guys must compromise on this issue for it to even have a faint hope of getting any traction with the Canadian public. The Globe's model of MM-PR is - I contend - the best way to go in that regard.

If that system gets implemented and further tweaking to its model is required.. then there's nothing to say that cant be done. Rome wasnt built in a day.

Jason Cherniak said...

Thanks for a doing this. I think its a very fair report.

I'm sure Dion will aim his message more at non-Liberals when it comes to winning an election instead of the leadership.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


In response to all of your points, I can only say one thing: when it comes to electoral reform in other countries and other jurisdictions, the winning model for reform hasn't been a wishy-washy compromise, but a grassroots movement followed by public education, heavy citizen involvement in designing the new voting system, and then a referendum pitting it against the status quo. New Zealand did it in 1993. B.C. came less than three points of the massive 60% necessary for achieving it in 2005, and because of that near-success, they're going to get another shot at it alongside the next provincial election. By contrast, there's not a single success story you can point to in which a compromise model that falls short of proportionality was proposed and got through by some other means. Not a one. You can make all the assumptions you want about the impracticality of pushing for the reforms Canada really needs, but the hard data from other jurisdictions tells another story.

You're right that the bitter partisanship of the Canadian political scene would make multiparty coalition governments very difficult right now. But I submit that this antagonism is a direct result of our electoral system, because all the parties are trying so hard to reach single-party majority governments that they lose sight of what's really best for Canada. Under a new PR-based system, that carrot would be removed, and the parties would need to learn to be less antagonistic and compromise with each other to find the best solutions to problems. That's precisely what happened in New Zealand when they switched to the system Dion favours. There would almost certainly be a long period of growing pains in which the politicians learned how to do their jobs under the new system (again, evidence from NZ bears that out), but in the end we'd have not only a better voting system, but a more workable political culture as well.


Thank you; I appreciate your comments. And thanks for any input you may have had into suggesting me as the Blogging Dipper interviewer, as well. It was fun, and I learned a lot as well.

Oxford County Liberals said...

I would contend this model meets proportionality Idealist; its just not as much proprtionality as you "purists" would like.

But Canada is a nation of compromises.. and I think you folks are going to have to learn to do that if you want nay hope for a new electoral system in Canada to make it more reflective of voters wishes.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Okay, I'm not sure why I'm doing this when you're clearly not reading what I'm writing. But one last try:

I am, first and foremost, in favour of citizen involvement in determining the voting system. Why? Because it's the only way reform actually ends up being accomplished for exactly the reason you point out--no ruling party is willing to put into practice a reform that gets rid of the system that elected it.

In other words, if a federal Citizens' Assembly is put together, and they spend a lot of time learning about electoral systems, and they decide together that the Globe and Mail's semi-proportional system is the best one, then that's one thing. But there's no reason to choose a compromise system right off the bat, since under the citizens' assembly model, it won't be the politicians who choose the new system anyway. And when citizens choose the voting system, they tend to choose what's best for the voters and not what's best for any particular political party.

And like I said earlier, you can call this model unrealistic until you're blue in the face, but it's the model that's actually being used in Canada right now, and it's the model that's come closest to producing results.

Oxford County Liberals said...

I'm sorry if I'm not coming across clearer myself.. but I'll just say this:

I dont have a problem with a Citizen's Assembly; I'm not sure if you thought I was in disagreement with that or not. I'm just advocating that the Globe's system is the model the Citizen's Assembly should pick. :)

Wilf Day said...

Good news about Stephane Dion, but not a great surprise. All parties in the Quebec National Assembly support proportional representation, as did 90% of delegates to the Estates-General on the Reform of Democratic Institutions. The problem is, most Quebec MPs are not prepared to try to sell it in English-speaking Canada. The fact that he even mentioned it is a plus.

The system Scott Tribe is proposing is not "Mixed-Member Proportional." It is the system used in Japan, known as the "parallel" system or "Mixed-Member-Majoritarian." It is a semi-proportional system. It would, for example, give the Conservatives still more MPs from Alberta when they already have all of them, rather than use additional MPs only as compensation for under-represented parties. What's the point of that?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


He didn't mention it of his own accord; he was asked about it. But he was willing to discuss it rather than play it down, which is something.

I entirely agree with you that the Mixed-Member Majoritarian system would be pointless for Canada, as it wouldn't actually address the problems that need addressing in our electoral system. It also strikes me as ironic that Scott Tribe would say that "Canada is a nation of compromises" and then argue that coalition governments would never be embraced here. The fact that Canadians are so good at compromise would make such a system even more appropriate here than it is in many countries that already use it successfully! It'd just be a matter of getting the pesky First Past the Post system out of the way that encourages politicians to promote their party above all else, and then giving them a few years to adjust. If New Zealand did it, then so can we.