A thinker and a fighter
Stephane Dion talks tough, asserts his party's standing and breaks out the nautical metaphors
Aaron Wherry | Oct 10, 2007 | 18:53:02
First, a joke.
"I hope you have had a very good Thanksgiving,” Liberal leader Stephane Dion began, his entire existence, as usual, seeming to hang in the balance. “Some of you may ask where I went. Well, I decided to follow the advice of the Prime Minister. I cut bait and went fishing.”
At least a few reporters laughed. Dion smiled, looking somewhat sheepish, somewhat proud.
Last week, the Prime Minister sat on this same stage at the National Press Theatre and did as Stephen Harper does. He battered his inquisitors with logic, did his best to seem both diplomatic and principled and, eventually, said something inflammatory.
“They have to fish or cut bait,” he quipped of the opposition's threats to vote against next week's Throne Speech.
Ergo, Dion’s retort. And ergo, the need for Dion to emerge from three weeks of “hell” or “chaos” or whatever melodramatic descriptive you prefer. Three weeks, specifically, of over-analyzed election loses, courageously anonymous quotes and at least one alleged ethnic joke.
“We’ve had these kind of difficulties in the past,” Dion said yesterday, calling upon his party’s grand tradition of ego-driven dissension. "It happens in the life of any organization."
This was the soberly pragmatic Dion. "We are not expecting that next Tuesday, this government will give us a Throne Speech that will be from a Liberal perspective," he added later.
The Liberal leader does this well - pragmatism so rare around here that it's relatively easy to sound like a reasonable adult. But the point of this public appearance - for the record, the press release mentioned a shuffling of Dion's shadow cabinet - was not to make Dion seem the nice guy.
That the leader of the opposition is a gentlemen and the Prime Minister a big meany is a point that has been well made. And was again yesterday, during Dion's prepared remarks. "Mr. Harper wants to control this Parliament just as he controls his government. With an adversarial management style, which is not inclusive, it is not respectful of the views of others or the real priorities that Canadians share.”
Yes, yes, we get it. He's a jerk. So whaddya gonna do about it?
"Even though we do not want an election, if Mr. Harper forces one, we Liberals will be ready for it."
Okay. But could you say that using slightly more aggressive language?
"If the Conservatives, by their intransigence, bring Canada there, the Liberals will give them a fight that they will regret having started."
For sure, most of Dion's shortcomings are still there. His manner of speaking English is choppy and he chews on some of the trickier words. He's still a slight man with a shy smile. But he's at least starting to sound like a leader. Which is to say, he's starting to sound like a guy who might entertain the thought, if absolutely necessary, of punching his opponent in the face.
Questions from a more skeptical press gallery than what welcomed the Prime Minister challenged Dion on Afghanistan, the environment and his various dissenters. Often he found new and inventive ways to talk tough. "If there is an election, we’ll be ready. And we’ll win this election, I’m very confident ... I think [Harper] should think twice before putting us in that situation ... If the Prime Minister wants to underestimate the Liberal Party, he will do it at his own expense."
Last week, Harper spoke of consulting with both Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton. Asked about this apparent snub, Dion went back to his metaphorical tackle box. "The Prime Minister knows where I am. He may phone me at anytime," he said. "If he wants to invite me to the Harrington Lake, he will cut bait and I will fish."
To add to the qualifiers, it must be said that some of the empty rhetoric remains("We’ll come with a so strong platform. Good vision for the country. Much more generous than what the Prime Minister will propose."). And when that fails, as it often does, Dion can seem completely without answers to specific questions.
But his sound bites now come with just a little swagger - whether daring the Prime Minister to throw the first punch or nearly asserting his party's status as the natural governing authority. "It is Liberal policies that people usually prefer," he mused at one point.