Mr. Stéphane Dion, the most improbable of Liberal leaders, who almost became the most improbable of Canadian Prime Ministers thanks to an equally improbable coalition, has resigned. What will his legacy be? There are, I think, two important effects his tenure as Liberal leader will likely have on the Canadian political landscape.
First, a good–perhaps, even great–policy may be relegated to the trash heap of history. Eliminating income tax in favor of consumption and pollution taxes is a sensible policy which, in the long run, will greatly benefit all Canadians. Mr. Dion’s proposal, The Green Shift, while far from ideal was, nevertheless, a reasonable iteration of the core idea. The policy was adequate, the pitch ineffective, and the timing disastrous. Unfortunately, now the very idea of a “tax shift” will be regarded by many as the political equivalent of drinking hemlock. If this is true, this is bad news for all Canadians.
Second, the Liberal Party will, once again, postpone the reform and renewal it so desperately needs. Mr. Dion, and not the Liberal team, will take the blame for the abysmal performance of the last election. Mr. Dion is by no means a great communicator and, if the rumors are true, too single-minded for his own good. Even still, had the Liberal machine been working hard for him all across Canada–as a well-functioning team always should do for its leader during an election–the results would have been much better. A strong, well-organized, and committed team can make up for a leader’s shortcomings and capitalize on unexpected success–like Mr. Dion’s performance in the french language debate–and an opponent’s unexpected gaffes–like Mr. Harper’s handling of the cuts to arts funding. However, if the team is fractured, uncommitted, demoralized, and alienated, then, the result will be predictable–no matter how strong the leader may be. The frantic bid to instal Mr. Ignatieff, with as little grassroots input as possible, suggest reform and renewal will not be happening anytime soon and Liberal supporters across the country will be further demoralized and alienated. Of course, Mr. Dion is not responsible for this outcome but his unsuccessful tenure as leader will be the catalyst. In this time of uncertainty, Liberal leaders will not likely risk letting the grassroots pick the wrong candidate–in their eyes–again.
As a result, Mr. Harper and his team stand a very good chance of remaining in power for some time and they may very well change the nature and tenor of federal politics forever–as has already happened with the decision to prorogue parliament rather than face a confidence vote. Whether or not this will be a positive outcome will depend largely on the policies actually adopted by Mr. Harper’s government and how one understands and values the role of the federal government in the lives of everyday Canadians.
Of course, much still depends on whether or not the new Liberal leader will try to make the coalition work, fight a campaign on the idea of making a coalition work, be content to be Leader of the Official Opposition until public opinion changes, or will try to win it all for the Liberals a few short months after the party’s second worst performance ever. It’s too early to speculate with any certainty but I suspect Mr. Harper will come forward with a “say-anything budget” which will make it very hard for the coalition to take power. Of course, having had his nose tweaked publicly by as improbable a giant-slayer as Mr. Dion, wounded pride may cause Mr. Harper to introduce another take it or leave budget if the polling numbers are there. Either way, it will make for compelling television come January–compelling, but pale in comparison to the political pageantry south of the border.