A few days before the federal election was called, like most political junkies I was anticipating the battle ahead and surprised that the topic wasn’t coming up in the morning chats at my rural Ontario general store. I raised the issue, and got blank stares. It wasn’t clear people knew an election was near, and the brief conversation indicated they didn’t particularly care. Months earlier, there had been heated talk about Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama, but this day, conversation quickly reverted to more local fare.
Except for one fellow, who confessed privately that he was having trouble as he contemplated voting. He was worried about his negative reaction to Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. It wasn’t Dion’s politics. It was the way Dion spoke.
The fellow was worried that he was unconsciously discriminating against a French-Canadian political leader struggling to speak English. That didn’t seem fair. But the fact was, he didn’t feel comfortable with or receptive to Dion. He found it hard to listen to Dion, or make sense of what he was saying. Besides, Dion didn’t seem like much of a leader – he seemed weak. Look at the way he sat on his hands during some of the votes in Parliament.
We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned that if leadership was taking tough stands, Dion probably passed the test. The carbon tax was certainly controversial. And look at his record in Quebec: he was a valiant defender of federalism in the last referendum, came to Ottawa in a dark moment with no political experience to be a cabinet minister, went head-to-head with Lucien Bouchard many times, stayed in the Liberal Party when Paul Martin was edging him out and instead won his way back to cabinet, and then made a successful long-shot bid for the party leadership. Dion had many faults, I noted, but in those actions he seemed like a leader.
I left it there. I wasn’t intending to make the case for Dion, or anybody else. Indeed, I was surprised he was even looking at Dion, since he leaned to the Conservatives, but clearly his dislike of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had opened him to scout other possibilities.
We had both learned from the discussion. What I had learned was whatever the reality about Stéphane Dion, the Conservative government’s fusillade of attack ads on his leadership – aided by media derision over his abstentions on confidence motions – and his personal bearing and awkward communication style in English meant he was going to have a very hard time in Ontario, the Liberal Party’s stronghold in recent years. Indeed, the election might well be over before it had begun: He was quite possibly Dead Man Walking.
I now know that was true. The election was over before it started. It hinged more on communication style and interconnected leadership image than policy, and was never about the economy despite all the headlines telling us it was. To the extent that it was about policy, it was about the one policy on which the government was particularly weak across Canada but which never got proper attention, and about one policy firestorm that it foolishly fuelled in Quebec but only got minor attention in voting decisions in the rest of Canada.