The Commons: The Dion experiment
Why the Afghanistan debate will tell us a lot about the Liberal leader and perhaps the state of our politics in general
Aaron Wherry | Feb 7, 2008 | 18:00:56
The Scene. The 39th leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition was attempting to address the reporters anxiously assembled outside his party's weekly caucus meeting. He had, he said, a brief opening statement.
An impatient veteran of the gallery would have none of it though, shouting a rather insistent query in the opposition leader's direction. As a result, it took perhaps 10 uncomfortable seconds for some consensus to be reached and the aforementioned opening statement to begin.
So, eventually, we arrived again at another of these defining moments for Stéphane Maurice Dion. They come every couple of weeks now. Or maybe it just seems that way.
Moments earlier, Liberal Bryon Wilfert, reputed to be a Dion ally, as if such Liberals need to be readily identified, had emerged as a sort of opening act, dispatched to explain to reporters what they would next hear. "I have no doubt," he said, "that our position will be a clear difference between the NDP position and the Conservative position."
The evening previous, Dion and the Prime Minister sat opposite one another and attempted to make something of their respective positions on the mission in Afghanistan. Faced with such a complex and vital topic, they managed to talk for an entire 25 minutes. So ended the entirety of the mature, non-partisan negotiation we were promised.
Relatively speaking, the Liberal position on Afghanistan is a complicated one. Which is to say it takes more than a one-word chant to articulate. While the NDP demands complete withdrawal and the Conservatives insist we carry on undaunted, Dion argued again yesterday that he would see Canada remain in Afghanistan after next February, but only to rehabilitate and rebuild. To fight if necessary, but not necessarily to fight.
When Dion had finished explaining as much, the gallery was invited to resume shouting and did so furiously.
Do you see, begged the first reporter to catch Dion's ear, any way to reconcile your position with that of Mr. Harper?
"We'll try. The Prime Minister committed to me that he would not repeat the same mistake that he did in 2006. It will not be a rushed debate of a couple of hours. We'll do it in a civilized way this time."
Did Mr. Harper make it clear to you that it would be a confidence vote?
"Yes, he made that very clear."
Are you afraid of an election campaign on this issue?
"I'm never afraid of anything."
Is your caucus united on this?
"Yes, the caucus is very united."
Do you see room for compromise on both sides, or are we on a collision course towards an election?
"I see a role for Canada after February 2009. And I hope that the Prime Minister will consider that."
Did the Prime Minister indicate whether he would be willing to entertain an amendment on his motion?
"I suggested to him, if he was ready to contemplate a non-combat role in Canada, it would be very positive for the development of Afghanistan. And he said that he wants to continue the combat role. On that there's a big difference."
How can you be in Afghanistan and not be prepared to fight?
"You need to be prepared to fight. But a combat role is when you are proactively seeking the engagement of the enemy."
Dion does not obviously enjoy this stuff. The yelling overwhelms him. He crouches down below the glare of the spotlights and tries to point in the direction of specific reporters, making a futile effort to be equitable in his choice of questions. He bravely attempts to impose some sense of order on that which is inherently irrational. It's both compelling and excruciating to watch.
But this, again, is the Dion Experiment. Faced with other options too adamantly defined, the Liberals went with the least obvious of leaders. And into a system that rewards brevity, assurance and pithy clarity, they put forth an individual who, depending on your perspective, is either methodical and nuanced or timid and indecisive. A man thoroughly unsuited for the scrum, let alone Question Period or all the other scenes in which our leaders are placed to be judged.
For sure, Stephen Harper is no charmer himself. But while he, like Dion, is often lauded as a studious mind, the Prime Minister has settled on a blunt, often brutal, way of carrying himself. His government regularly expresses itself in little more than grunts.