National Column: Dion has always cramped Liberal style

by Paul Wells

Stephane Dion has always been every Liberal leader’s special gift.

When Justin Trudeau announced a renewed Liberal cabinet that had no place for Dion, it was clear Dion’s refusal to accept the sinecure Trudeau had offered – simultaneous appointments, it is reported, as ambassador to Germany and to the European Union – was putting a serious cramp in Trudeau’s style on a big day.

But then, on his best days as on his worst, Dion has always been about cramping somebody’s style.

The bookish, pugnacious, deeply emotional political scientist entered politics – 21 years ago this month – on the personal initiative of Jean ChrÈtien.

Not even ChrÈtien’s closest advisers, Jean Pelletier and Eddie Goldenberg, knew at first that ChrÈtien had seen Dion defending federalism on television and called to invite him to Ottawa. Dion was on ChrÈtien’s doorstep at 24 Sussex Drive a day after ChrÈtien called.

“When he showed up wearing heavy boots and a toque, covered in snow and carrying a knapsack on his back, I thought to myself, ëOh my God, what have I got myself involved with?'” ChrÈtien wrote later in his memoirs.

The question would later occur to other Liberal leaders.

The features that commended Dion to ChrÈtien’s attention – mastery of detail, limitless stamina and a physical inability to feel fear – made him so indispensable as ChrÈtien’s lead minister on national unity that Dion briefly became a political target when ChrÈtien’s rival, Paul Martin, ousted ChrÈtien to become the new prime minister.

Martin declined to put Dion in his first cabinet, and did not even have the grace to call and let Dion know he was out. He authorized efforts to defeat Dion for the Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent.

But Dion had already earned the loyalty of Montreal Liberals for his work on the anti-secession Clarity Bill.

Realizing he had a fight on his hands, Martin told his organizers to down tools and let Dion stay. After the 2004 election, he made Dion his minister of the environment, and again Dion’s doggedness made him a cabinet star. A lesser star in a lesser government, but still a force to be reckoned with.

His own tenure as Liberal leader was a disaster rendered less vivid in hindsight because his successor, Michael Ignatieff, made even more of a mess. But Dion sure was a challenge for his handlers. In the 2006 leadership race, he ran against Ignatieff’s signature environmental proposal, a carbon tax. Heaped scorn on it.

Then, having defeated Ignatieff, he decided Canada needed a carbon tax.

That proposal would be hard for even a silver-tongued and charismatic leader to defend. You’ll note that in 2015, Justin Trudeau didn’t bother to try, waiting until after he’d won an election to go into any detail at all about carbon pricing. Dion had neither the silver tongue nor the charisma. Stephen Harper made short work of him.

And then, in the days after the 2008 election, Dion went to ground for a full week, neither appearing in public nor making any public declaration. It later emerged that he had called around, looking for support for a bid to remain as Liberal leader even after he had led the party to its worst popular-vote score in history.

It would have been handy if he had made more friends. One senior adviser got the call. “What should I do?” Dion asked.

“You never took my advice before,” the staffer told him, acidly. “Why should I expect you to start now?”

There followed another visit to the outer reaches of Liberal legitimacy, as Dion abstained from most public comment on most issues for the duration of Ignatieff’s troubled tenure as leader.

It was an act of kindness: Dion knew his presence, for some reason even his very existence, freaked Ignatieff out, and he was trying to cut the new boss some slack. After Ignatieff was routed in 2011, Dion took on a more public role once again. It would have been surprising indeed if he had been left out of Trudeau’s first cabinet.

It is less surprising that he has not lasted long.

Very early, rumours began circulating that Dion was impatient with less-experienced ministers, which was most of them. At meetings of cabinet committees, he would make no effort to hide his towering disdain for positions he didn’t share.

Now, a willingness to say no can be a virtue, but Dion was otherwise unsuccessful at distinguishing himself.

His attempt to brand his vision of foreign policy – anyone? Anyone? He called it “responsible conviction” – did not resonate at all.

On Trudeau’s most high-profile early foreign policy successes – his close relationship with Barack Obama, his rock-star turn at Davos – Dion was not a factor. On Trudeau’s next big challenge, figuring out what to do with Donald Trump, Dion did not seem like part of a solution.

I’m keenly aware, as I write this, that I am damning one of 21st-century Canadian liberalism’s household gods with faint praise. It’s hard for me to write this stuff, too: During Dion’s first decade in politics, he often stood to me as an example of the finest virtues any outsider can bring to politics. Fierce intelligence, conviction, a persistent willingness to engage in debate instead of seeking to shut it down.

But there was a second decade. And today, Dion’s departure from politics comes as less of a disappointment.

It seems almost to offer solace. Perhaps, eventually, even to him.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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