Stephane Dion talks party re-building, the coalition crisis and why young people should vote Liberal

Three years later, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion maintains that attempting to form a coalition government was the best course of action for Canada on the precipice of a recession. Dylan Hewlett
Three years later, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion maintains that attempting to form a coalition government was the best course of action for Canada on the precipice of a recession. Dylan Hewlett

On Nov. 8, The Uniter interviewed former Liberal leader and key contributor in the 2008 coalition crisis, Stephane Dion, after he spoke about democratic reform at the University of Winnipeg’s Convocation Hall.
Dion’s talk focused largely on his criticism of the Harper Conservatives’ attempt at democratic reform through the addition of 30 seats in Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. He also took on their attempt to reform the Senate, making it an elected body with fixed term limits.

Dion argued that the number of seats in the House of Commons should be fixed at its current number of 308, with seats being cut in areas where the population has stagnated and added where the population has grown.

On Senate reform, he argued that a constitutional mechanism should be in place to resolve disputes between the Senate and the House if the upper chamber is to be elected.

The 56-year-old Dion remains a Member of Parliament for St. Laurent-Cartierville, where he has won every election since 1996.

The Uniter: Mr. Rae recently announced a process for choosing the next Liberal leader modelled after the American primary system. What are the costs and benefits of this new process? Will it push the party away from the centre and further to the left, as some allege?

Dion: I think it makes sense to do that. The socialist party in France has done it and it has been a huge success. It’s easier for people to be involved in this process, they come and they vote. It happened also in Alberta when the Conservatives chose their leader, and it went very well. I think that it is something that we should do if the member comes to this conclusion.

What was the key thing or issue that precipitated the Liberals becoming a third party in the House of Commons and what needs to be done to re-build the party?

There are many issues, of course, but if I was to list two of them, it would be that we need to learn how to campaign in a permanent way and not starting only when the official campaign starts, and that means a lot of ability to raise money and keep your grassroots involved, 12 months a year for four years and that is something we need to learn. The second thing is that we need to be perceived by Canadians as the party that knows how the market economy works and how the government works and how they work together for the sake of Canadians. Over the last two elections, we did not succeed to make this link between our ability to manage the economy, to create jobs, and using properly the tools of the government.

Why do you think you weren’t successful at doing that? You alluded to Mr. Ignatieff attempting to eat into NDP support in your speech…

Mr. Ignatieff spoke a lot about the economy, but our communications plan was more focusing on helping families at a time when the economy of the world is struggling. We should, I think, next time make sure that the issue of jobs, creating jobs, creating a competitive economy to ensure the future of our workers, will be at the core of what we have to say. In 2008, I thought that it was my focus but Canadians understood that I was focusing on the environment when, in fact, I was focusing on the sustainable economy, how to create more wealth without having too much waste, how to protect our natural environment in order to have a strong economy. Lake Winnipeg is degrading like it is, more and more, and that will not be good for the economy of Manitoba. So I failed to make this link clear in the minds of the people. The environment for many people is still perceived as a burden for the economy, not something that is at the core of a strong economy, so that is why we had difficulties in 2008.

And do you feel that the failure to make that linkage was due to the Conservatives framing the Liberal Party, or you as a leader, early on?

Yes, the two issues are linked. If you are not able to win the pre-campaign, whatever you say during the campaign will be tainted by what the Conservatives have already said about you and your platform.

And how do you win the pre-campaign?

Trying to win it, instead of starting during the campaign. If the Conservatives introduce the next Liberal leader to Canadians, it will be bad for us. We need to be sure that the next leader will be able to reach Canadians primetime. In my case, the Conservatives came with an attack ad that they put in the Super Bowl and we weren’t unable to react to that, because we didn’t have the money. They invested millions of dollars against my Green Shift and people were sure that it would cost them huge amounts of money so they didn’t want to vote for us. In this province, in Manitoba, with Hydro electricity, most people would never have paid the carbon tax but they would have had the tax cut that came with it. We failed to explain that. We should have had a huge number of seats in Manitoba but we failed to explain that and I take responsibility for it.

Why should a young person or a student vote for the Liberal Party, or take out a Liberal party membership?

I think the Liberal party is the party that will use, in an optimal way, both the tools of the market economy and the tools of the government. This is the broad picture that we need today. The idea that capitalism is over, and that we need to look for another system, will never happen. It will always be a market economy and the freedom of companies to invest and so on, but you need to have a government to regulate that. You need to have a government to invest in the ability to have an educated population, a healthy population, a confident population. We Liberals are good to bridge issues like economic growth and social justice and environmental sustainability. And we are good to bridge people - English-speaking, French-speaking, newcomers, aboriginals, Westerners, Quebecers, Canadians of the north and the Maritimes, all together.

“The issue of the environment and climate change is so big and so huge that traditional partisan politics must not be the priority. We must show that there are some ways to cooperate with each other when the issue is as big as this one.”

-Stephane Dion

The NDP maintain that, if Quebec were to have another sovereignty referendum, 50 per cent plus one would be a sufficient majority to move forward with separation negotiations. What does this position say about the Clarity Act? Would the NDP have to scrap or amend the legislation in order to uphold this position?

That will be their problem. I think that the Clarity Act is good for Quebecers and the whole of Canada. Between confusion and clarity, I prefer clarity. You cannot break up a country with one vote of difference because it is a huge decision that will involve not only yourself, but the next generations. You will not have an opportunity years later to vote and to change your vote. Once you have broken up a country, it is forever and so one vote of difference doesn’t make sense. And the NDP know that.

When you look at their party constitution, they say that, in order to change the constitution of the NDP party, you need a majority of two thirds. At the last convention, some wanted to change the constitution and refer to themselves as a social democratic party instead of a socialist party. In order to change one word, they needed two-thirds support. Since they failed to reach these two-thirds, even though a majority of them wanted to be social democrat rather than socialist, they did not change the constitution. So in order to change a word in the NDP constitution you need two-thirds, and in order to break up Canada you would need only one vote. This is complete nonsense.

Why do you think they maintain that position, then?

Because they think that it is a way to please Quebec. But I think it is irresponsible because if an attempt of succession, separation, is done in confusion without assurance that it is the clear will of the people, and if this attempt at succession is done in Quebec, it will be a problem for Winnipeg, yes. But it will be chaos in Montreal.

Clearly, the Conservatives and the NDP have distinct positions and approaches to federalism and intergovernmental relations. How does the Liberal Party’s vision of Canadian federalism differ from that of the Conservative and New Democratic parties?

We have always thought that it is important to have a strong federal government but at the same time to respect the provinces. Mr. Harper, in some ways, wants to paralyze the federal system because if you have an elected Senate contradicting the house without a dispute settlement mechanism between them, the federal institutions may be paralyzed and become more and more irrelevant and useless in a very decentralized federation. To us, to protect the good functioning of the common institutions of Canadians that belong to all Canadians, our parliament, our supreme court, the Bank of Canada, all these institutions, it’s very important for us.

You were one of the main architects of the coalition negotiations, and the ultimate coalition accord, in 2008. Is there anything you regret about how you and the other parties went about selling a coalition government to Canadians?

Yes, I would have been pleased if things had been different. We did not make this decision lightly. The world was at the beginning of one of its worst recessions and Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty were denying the reality, pretending that a recession was not coming and that no deficit would happen. There was not one MP ready to vote for Mr. Flaherty’s mini-budget so we concluded that we needed to offer to the governor general another option and she decided to give Mr. Harper a couple of months to think about it, and when he came back he came with a new budget recognizing that the recession was coming. He came with the recovery plan, it was not a good one but at least it was a recovery plan. So I have a sense that I served well my country with what we did.

And why do you think the governor general decided to prorogue Parliament, outside of constitution convention?

She (Michaëlle Jean) will never say so because she is not supposed to justify her decision, but maybe she decided to give to Mr. Harper the time to think about it. To change his approach and to take into account that Canadians wanted a government that would address the world recession.

In the 2008 federal election, you made an arrangement with Elizabeth May whereby you would not run a candidate in her riding and she would not run candidate in your riding. Other than individual electoral benefit, was their any larger strategy behind that decision?

The motivation was to show to Canadians that the issue of the environment and climate change is so big and so huge that traditional partisan politics must not be the priority. We must show that there are some ways to cooperate with each other when the issue is as big as this one.

Is a merger between the Liberal Party and the Green Party possible?

We should be open to co-operate in new ways but of course parties have their own identities and personalities and the Liberal Party has a great tradition. We should not think we are alone to have good ideas, we should be able to work with others while being ourselves.

Published in Volume 66, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 17, 2011)

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