Are the Conservatives about to elect their own Stéphane Dion?

Stéphane Dion led the Liberals into almost a decade of darkness. The Tories may want to take heed, ahead of what may be Maxime Bernier’s coronation



The Conservative Party is about to pull a Dion.

In selecting Maxime Bernier as their next leader this weekend at the party’s leadership convention—an outcome that the pitiful withdrawal of carpetbagger Kevin O’Leary has made all but inevitable—the Conservatives risk repeating history. It just won’t be their own.

In 2006, the federal Liberals gathered in Montreal to select a new leader. Like today’s Conservatives, the party was down but not out. They too enjoyed a 100 person-strong caucus and hoped that a new leader might soon guide them back to power.

Then a sort of mass hypnosis gripped party members and they chose Stéphane Dion. For Liberals, it began a nine-year journey through dark and forbidding woods. And this weekend, Conservatives seem set to launch themselves down the same breadcrumb trail.

In fairness, it is unkind to compare Dion and Bernier—unkind to Dion, that is. Bernier lacks anything nearing the record of public service that Dion brought to his leadership run. In 2006, he was the iron-willed former minister for national unity who had helped quell separatism after the 1995 referendum. Bernier thinks, but can’t remember for sure, that he voted to break up Canada. Later, as environment minister, Dion made a bold impression both at home and abroad. Bernier, on the other hand, was dropped as Stephen Harper’s foreign affairs minister after leaving secret government documents tucked between the sheets of a Montreal-area love shack.

As national party leaders however—assuming Bernier wins—the two merit comparison in at least a couple respects.

OUR PROFILE: How Bernier went from comic relief to Tory frontrunner

First, their success says more about the peculiar, intramural psychology that can seize political parties downsized by electoral defeat than it does about their own candidacies. Dion slipped through the dime-sized space between frontrunners Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff to surprise even his followers by winning. Bernier, always the first choice of the Ayn Rand crowd, has emerged as the least unacceptable second or third choice for remaining Conservative party members.

In both cases, the particulars of the leadership selection process disproportionately reward candidates for being who they are not. As a method of picking a leader, it’s a good way to reach compromise. It is perhaps less effective at producing winners.

Most interesting is the way in which party members, caught up in the bubble universe of a leadership race, can convince themselves that their choice is outstanding. Dion’s shortcomings were not invisible. And only the quantum-physics complexity of a 14-candidate preferential ballot could make it plausible to overlook Bernier’s obvious deficiencies.

MORE: As it’s laid out now, Bernier’s health-care plan could be electoral poison

Chief among these are his ideas and, even more concerning from an electoral standpoint, his ideological attachment to them. Bernier’s opinions are marked by an inelastic obstinacy that, while very different in substance, reflect Dion’s own indifference toward pragmatic politics. Bernier is a self-professed Libertarian who seeks to lead a country that has always demanded middle-of-the road practicality. Talk of free market anti-statism will be celebrated among Friedrich Hayek disciples. The rest of the country will wonder what the hell he’s on about.

The most obvious comparison between Bernier and Dion, however, is the somewhat delicate subject of their language skills. Observers are wary of raising this impolitic subject. But that doesn’t make it unimportant. Like Dion, Bernier’s English is heavily accented and sometimes halting. With the ready memory of Jean Chrétien, questions about Dion’s language proficiency were dismissed at the time. In retrospect, it would be dishonest to conclude that it was a non-factor.

Conservatives, after all, cheered in 2008 as unflattering outtakes appeared of Dion struggling through an interview with CTV’s Steve Murphy. Wouldn’t it be delicious irony for Dion if a Bernier-led Conservative Party discovered a decade later that what goes around comes around.

The final question is how good Bernier will be at uniting his party, a chore that somewhat eluded Dion. Unable to attract headliners like Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney or John Baird, the contest to replace Stephen Harper has been a hidden-in-plain-sight calamity for self-respecting Conservatives.

In particular, O’Leary’s farcical, part-time campaign was a revelation. Fuelled by Trump-like bombast and a pronounced lack of commitment, O’Leary campaigned lazily from U.S.-based television studios and still emerged as the likely first-ballot leader. What to make of a party so eager to turn itself over to the Fuller Brush man?

Kellie Leitch’s success might be even more disturbing. Riding a nativist collection of Marine Le Pen policies, she has scraped out a discouragingly competitive campaign. One wonders what might have been if she was even slightly less ridiculous as a candidate—or what influence her followers might now claim over party policy.

Throw in a muscular group of pro-life social Conservatives, Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore’s breakaway movement and the lamentable retirement of Rona Ambrose, and Bernier will have his hands full long before he gets to Justin Trudeau.

None of that means the Conservatives can’t win in 2019. But, like the Liberals of 2006, they’re going out of their way to make it as hard as possible.

Scott Reid is principal at Feschuk.Reid and served as director of communications to former prime minister Paul Martin.


Are the Conservatives about to elect their own Stéphane Dion?

  1. “Beer and popcorn” guy blaming Dion for the decade of darkness for the Liberal Party, rather the Paul Martin and his merry gang of political incompetents and traitors, including the “beer and popcorn” author.

    Still waiting for the soldiers on the streets.

    • Brits have soldiers on the street…….we don’t

      • “Soldiers on the streets” is a reference to a Liberal attack ad.
        See: h$$ps://

        I have no idea what role, if any, Scott Reid played in the making of that ad.

  2. Scott Reid is a former Liberal Party insider so it’s not surprising to see such partisanship on display here.

  3. Cons don’t have PhDs…just car salesman and farmers.

    • And the Liberals chose a bouncer come snow boarder-now that’s PhD material!!

      • You can’t tell student jobs from adult jobs?

        He has 2 degrees Jerome. Yes, he can go for a PhD.

  4. Mad Max is a whole different quintal of fish compared to Dion, intellectually. Dion suffered an image problem, not lack of brains.

  5. It took the liberals 10 years to get their act together before being reelected back in government, i think the Cons should be focused on 2023, not 2019, because they will have to worry about bringing their party together after the leadership race, and that is seemly starting to look like a car crash waiting to happen, from all the different factions in the party. Big Tent Parties can sometimes bring Big Tent headaches, especially since it’s still a western based party with a hard right Harper indoctrination instilled in it. After the new leader is elected, we may even see some long time Con MPs go silently into retirement knowing they could be sitting in the nose bleed section of the HOCs for another term, just pining away at their lectern.

  6. History teaches us that it was Cretien and his disagreements with Martin that opened the door into darkness. Dion simply followed.
    And remember that our national politics is much like the Americans. 2 Clinton terms resulted in 2 Bush terms which led to two Obama terms (I think it was almost another Obama term but lets not debate the recent US election here. So 2 Mulroney “terms” led to three Cretien “terms” etc, etc., etc.

    • Yes, we move back and forth all the time.

      It made me laugh when we got all the stories about how the Libs were finished, and would never come back……even the media believed it. But this is not a right-wing country.

    • 2005? Move on with your life.

      • No. You move on with YOUR life. *fires off comments section raspberry*

        • I’m afraid I have every bit as much right as you do to post my opinion.

          Live with it.

          • In fact, all of the voices in my head have the right. Some whisper, some scream, but all are my friends.

          • I see we have another hacker on here.

            Boy, a woman with an opinion really brings out the sexism in you guys.

  7. Jeez, Reid. You are a pill. I’ll give you that. The problems with Dion were not what led your tribe into the wilderness. No doubt he was dumber’n’ a bag of sticks, and despite years of high-falutin’ education, lacked the intellectual depth to grasp that the non-English speaking majority in this country were not going to tolerate the leadership of a man who was wholly incapable of communicating with them. We tolerated the corrupt Chretien because we all knew part of his persona was a shtick. His communication skills were top notch, despite some of his more infamous gags (“a proof is a proof is a proven proof”). We also knew, despite his corruption, that he was intelligent. Dion was the epitome of someone who spent decades in academia but never grew a brain. But none of that was why your tribe got cast out into the wilderness.
    We cast you out because you all were corrupt to the core. Still are. Maxime Bernier has the intellectual depth to grasp that government has become the overarching problem. Corruption, fraud, waste, oppressive regulation, uncontrolled costs, and simple sheer, raw, stupidity within and overflowing from governments are far greater threats to our society than most of the things that our legislative bodies spend most of their energies on. Worse, these things are all the Liberal stock in trade.

    • LOL you just recite the same things over and over again.

      Yet you lost the election.

      Buy a clue.

  8. As much as I disliked Harper, I have to take my hat off to his keeping this Party together for 9 years. The Raitts, Ambrose’ and O’Tooles know what is needed but are overshadowed with the different factions who have voice.. where the outrageous is the new normal. Max, Kellie and Kevin have done this Party a gross disservice just like the Avi’s and Naomi’s Leap Manifesto undermined the NDP. And much like Lewis and Klein, Max, Leitch and O’Leary will refuse the responsibility of their actions and behaviour.

  9. Gilmore’s ‘breakaway movement’? I live in one of the cities where he hosted a dinner. Never heard a peep about it until today. No news coverage, no social media coverage from any number of conservative friends/activists.

    • Shoop- That’s because Gilmore’s “breakaway movement” was nothing more than Gilmore’s desire to give Liberals who are ashamed of their party a place to hang out and pretend to be conservatives while espousing traditional soft-left Liberal talking points.

      • Sounds right Bill. I’ll be at a pretty big gathering of party supporters to watch the results tomorrow. What are the odds that absolutely none of them heard of Gilmore’s little circle jerk?