The Commons: Stéphane Dion introduces himself, again

‘The Canadian people is ready to do the right thing’

The Scene. By midday, the Liberal leader was getting a bit ahead of himself, referring in the third-person hypothetical to “Prime Minister Dion.”

You might forgiven him that bullishness though. For this was likely his happiest day since that night in Montreal. Not that there is a great supply of good days with which to compare what transpired today.

To set the stage though we turn first to the afternoon before. Chatting with reporters after QP, David McGuinty was asked to cast forward toward the Liberal plan to come. And without giving away any of the surprises—details of what we would come to know as the “Green Shift” were already being leaked all over Ottawa anyway—he did as good a job as any have done so far of making the case for his leader.

“We’re going to do what Mr. Dion’s always done,” he said, “which is to, you know, be strong, be sincere, be thoughtful.”

If Her Majesty’s Opposition has figured out the point of Stéphane Dion, this is probably it: He is not Stephen Harper. It surely ain’t much. But with two-thirds of the population fairly certain they don’t want to vote for the sitting Prime Minister, it might be enough.

This was, for all intents and purposes, the theme of the day that followed. Never mind the numbers and the theories and the promises (though they are relevant). It may all be revenue neutral, it may not. It may save the world, it may not. There will be plenty of time—several summer months now—to consider and debate and, hopefully, understand.

Beyond debate though is this: today showed us Stéphane Dion as Stéphane Dion would like us to see him. For perhaps the first time, there was opportunity to see the Liberal leader not as the Conservative side portrays him (a wimp), not as many in English Canada may see him (a Francophone wimp) and not as some in Quebec may still remember him (a traitor and a wimp). There was instead, to use his own wild-eyed optimism, “Prime Minister Dion.”

So what did we see?

After some fussing about the details—first Wednesday, then Thursday; first 10am, then 10:30am—the Liberals settled on a time and a place for their announcement, packing maybe a hundred or two into one of the grande committee rooms off the foyer in Centre Block. All wearing green baseball caps, all sweating in the absence of air conditioning, all terribly excited at the prospect of tax reform.

Before them stood three video screens, one dissolving slowly between images of animals and plants and fish and lakes and such. Over the speakers played classical music. A Liberal official said it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Several members of the press gallery quibbled. Sounds more like Mozart, they said.

After a brief introduction from his effusive friend Mr. McGuinty, Dion strode into the room to pulsing music. The montage on screen now included pictures of Dion the outdoorsman and lover of all things natural. Here was Dion fishing. Here was Dion tromping through the snow. Here was Dion consulting with a group of small children.

He arrived at the podium wearing as bright a grin as he has yet revealed. He had, he said, “a powerful plan.” But, he added, “it is as powerful as it is simple.”

Mr. Dion then returned to that stern look of his, the one he must give his daughter whenever she arrives home with anything less than an A-minus. What followed was less a speech than a dissertation, the Liberal leader explaining in careful detail how he would help your wife, your children, your parents, your uncle Jim who lives out on the farm and, depending on rover’s income level, perhaps even your little dog too.

Each new cut, of course, was greeted with wild applause. But not until the sixth page of a seven-page speech did he start to sing, his speechwriters finally blessing him with text that nodded to inspiration.

“They said it may be good policy, but it’s bad politics,” he recalled of the Clarity Act debate. “But I knew Canadians, including my fellow Quebecers, wanted clarity instead of confusion. And more importantly, I was—and I am—convinced that good policy makes for good politics.”

(Funny. If ever a policy has personified a politician it must surely this. Few, even on the government side, can legitimately question Mr. Dion’s intelligence or conviction. But, all agree, he is surely doomed. Few, even of the conservative persuasion, outright reject what Mr. Dion is proposing here. But, all assure, it is sure to doom its author. Everyone is sure that everyone else will reject both. Even if everyone agrees that neither are to be dismissed.)

Turning to the present, he directly engaged his detractors.

“We all know that these Conservative attack ads are a lie … They say much more about Stephen Harper’s leadership than they do about myself or my ideas.”

And then, with three paragraphs to go, his best lines.

“We will fight fear with hope. We will fight lies with facts. And we will fight Republican-style attack ads with Canadian-style courage.”

It was as strong as he’s ever sounded. Not, again, that many will see much competition in this regard.

He waded into the crowd when he was finished, shaking hands and putting on one of those green caps.

A short while later, he arrived in the National Press Theatre to take a half hour or so of the best the press gallery could muster. Otherwise often flustered by the fourth estate, the Liberal leader approached serenity in this place—surely emboldened by the belief that no one in the room knew more about the policy at hand than he.

One reporter suggested this campaigning on a tax was a mission impossible. “The Canadian people,” Dion said, “is ready to do the right thing.”

Later, he made the same appeal more grammatically.

“The political elite tends to underestimate the intelligence of Canadians,” he said. “No one underestimates Canadians more than Stephen Harper.”

There again was the contrast. There again was the point. It is an easy comparison, sure. Inevitable and necessary too.

But it’s finally one—a year and a half after they found themselves with this gawky, bewildering man in charge—that the Liberals seem ready to make.