Monday, September 25, 2006

Why I support Stephane Dion

The media is a funny creature.

According to the Independent, I am a prominent Liberal who is supporting Stephane Dion. At the same time and in the same weekend, according to the charming, perceptive and ever-sunny Telegram columnist Bill Rowe I am a mere low-level functionary - a flunky, so to speak - supporting Stephane Dion.

In the end, what can I say in the face of such a barrage of widely disparate observations except that they both correctly report that I am a supporter of Stephane Dion for the Liberal Party leadership.

I've never tried to bury my partisan inclinations but nor have I been a blinkered warrior in the cause of the big red machine. It's possible that under other circumstances, I could have become a tory, albeit a red one. I'm sure I'd be mighty uncomfortable in the federal Conservative Party the way it is now, for example.

I think my world view tends towards the purple (reddish-blue or bluish-red as you'd prefer) on economic issues. In terms of government activity in everyday life, the more time I spent in government the more libertarian I've become because I've seen from the inside too much of the incompetencies that passes as government "core competencies".

But on the issue of national unity, one close to my heart, I am an unrepentant federalist because I believe, and can argue on many grounds, that it's the way forward with the best future for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and for the country, the bleating of the local nationalists notwithstanding.

Now I have had severe objections with the leadership of the provincial and federal Liberal parties at different times. On the national level I always though Martin was a weak and vacillating disaster who damaged the party and the country by trying to be all things to all people all the time. And I was certainly disappointed with the reign of the regional minister John Efford who always seemed out of his depth and appeared advised by fools of a similar state.

Provincially, the leadership of Leo Barry was a dark time and I undertook a policy of total abstention from all partisan activity during the Tobin interregnum because I could not help but conclude that he was short-sighted and self-serving on almost every level. Even in the periods which I generally admired, the Grimes premiership for one, I had grave reservations about certain initiatives (the infamous Vic Young royal commission, for one) and objected when I could and to whom I could.

At the same time there are many Progressive Conservative politicians that I've greatly admired over the years because they were fine people who did worthy things regardless of party stripe: Ross Reid (greatly wasted where he is now), John Ottenheimer (a very fine gentleman), Trevor Taylor (courageous, tough and smart - too bad he was cut off at the knees by his

And of course John Crosbie: a first-class mind, the most powerful and effective regional minister and perhaps the greatest provincial premier and Prime Minister of Canada that never was. We need more like him of every stripe because they can make a difference in our society.

Overall, though, my political home, and where I've felt most comfortable most of my life, has been with the Liberals on the provincial and federal level.

My personality and way of dealing with issues is part of the reason I've found my home with the Liberals. One thing that drives me to distraction about the current federal Conservatives and the NDP at all levels is their ideological drive and zeal. In their worldview there is no need to ask questions because, as far as they're concerned, the answers are obvious and are fed by their ideological rectitude.

In that sense the right wing of the Conservatives and the main part of the NDP are not dissimilar.

That's not a way to dealing with the world to which I subscribe. In the end I'm too much a rationalist and a skeptic to be comfortable with a party that has all the answers - I think asking the right questions is more important. Critics of the blue and orange variety might refer to that perspective as amoral pragmatism and often do when denigrating the grits. Sorry but I can't agree with that characterization; it's glib and facile.

A special case of the party having all the answers is following the Leader who has all the answers. For some reason this province is particularly prone to that affliction and it's one that I can't abide by. Both parties have been guilty of this. The Liberals went through this under Smallwood and it took years to get out from under that shadow. The local PC's have drank from that well under a few different leaders with the highlights, or low points depending on your perspective, being the Peckford regime and the current Leader Who Must Be Obeyed.

It was that kind of repellent political foolishness that led to my first active political experience in the late 80's when I volunteered in the '89 election and found myself on the Clyde Wells Express crisscrossing the province with the man who would become Premier. I worked for him afterwards for three years and learned much about politics, the province and what was possible.

It was chance that brought me there but it was fortuitous chance. At a open meeting at MUN where I was taking some odd courses, I heard Wells articulate a rational view of provincial and national politics that echoed what I held dear. After the nationalistic breast-beating lunacy of the Peckford years, it was a breath of fresh air.

But that is all a digression from the topic at hand - my political inclination favouring Dion. In the mass of faceless federal cabinet ministers of the Chretien era, Dion was the one that caught my attention for a couple of different reasons.

First was his relentless dogging of the nationalist mythmakers of the Quebec separatist movement. As federal minister of intergovernmental Affairs (Unity minister), he was meticulous in responding to every misleading, untrue and unsubstantiated comment by Parti Quebecois government officials with public letters clarifying and correcting the statement at hand. Through this process, he helped prevent further corrosive nationalistic myths from taking hold in the public consciousness in Quebec.

And he did it without rancor or rant but was clear and substantial in every refutation of PQ government claims. I often wished we had his equivalent in this province.

Second was his championing of the Clarity Act. While many in the Liberal party quaked about provoking separatist fervor in Quebec, he dared to bring logic and clarity to a murky issue. Through a Supreme Court reference, he established clear ground rules on future referendum conditions including the substance of the question, some conditions under which future referendum campaigns could be fought and the circumstances under which the federal government would open negotiations. These principles were written into the Clarity Act which has become, I believe, the ultimate tool to deter the kind of nationalistic shenanigans which threatened the integrity of this country in the past.

Third is his combination of political realpolitik experience with a keen academic mind. While coming from a very successful academic background, his real and hard political experience has lead him away from the kinds of rookie mistakes made by Ignatieff, for example, who recklessly talks about re-opening the constitutional issue for what I can only characterize as short-term political advantage. For that reason I can't help but put Ignatieff in the same class as that other great politically motivated constitutional reformer, the Rt Hon Brian Mulroney.

When Dion says the Canada is a country that works better in practice than in principle, he recognizes the kinds of hard choices and compromises that needs to be made without sacrificing certain bedrock principles.

In the end I don't think the PMO is the place for on-the-job training in federal politics.

Finally, I was impressed with his grace in the face of political humiliation. Once the Martin forces seized the levers of the Prime Minister's Office, they shortsightedly worked to sweep away any remnants of l'ancienne regime. This included Dion who was dropped from cabinet. But in the 2004 election, when circumstance threatened to sweep the Martin government out of office, Martin brought Dion in from the cold. Dion, in spite of the shabby treatment afforded him by the Martin team thus far, agreed to assist in the party's Quebec and prairie campaigns where he was credited with winning several close ridings.

He placed the future of the team over that of his personal ego. That makes him a far bigger man that many others in his position.

A few weeks ago Dion came to St. John's. I organized his media work (hence the email to Bill Rowe) and squired him about for the 36 hours he was here. He was a very quick study, charming and considerate with a subtle sense of humour I appreciate.

On a personal gut level, I was impressed with him a person and, when you get right down to it, that is as important as any number of more cerebral factors.

I'm happy to see Stephane Dion jump into the race for Liberal leader and I'm glad to see others recognize what I'd long seen in him. Right now, I'd be hard pressed to imagine a better choice.

No comments: