Who Stole Stephane Dion’s Brain?

By Max Fawcett | April 25, 2008


It's no great secret that
Stephane Dion's first fifteen months as Liberal leader haven't gone according
to plan, unless the plan was to appear as weak and ineffective as possible. He
has failed to make any inroads in the polls or on the debt his party incurred while
electing him as its leader. Only the Liberal Party's current and entirely
short-term aversion to regicide has kept him in the leadership chair and safe
from the braying donkeys who sit on his backbenches. Michael Adams believes
that Dion's weakness stems from his effeminate manner and the absence of
"primitive leadership," while Michael Valpy argues that he appears "untouched
by life" with a "too-smooth face." Yet even if Dion drove up to Parliament Hill
on a Harley Davidson sporting a full beard, his leadership problems would
likely remain. It's not that Stephane Dion needs a new image; he needs to rediscover his old one. What happened to Canada's favourite

Stephane Dion was selected as the
leader of the Liberal Party in large part because of his reputation as a major
brain, although the fact that he was neither Michael Ignatieff nor Bob Rae
certainly helped. Prior to becoming leader Dion had amassed an impressive
intellectual resume that began with his role in crafting the Clarity Act but
also prominently featured his views on the environment and Canada's place in
the world. Liberals believed that they had chosen a man who could not only
unite a fractured party but also stand up to Stephen Harper and, if he polished
his English skills, beat him in a contest of ideas in either official language.
Unfortunately for Liberals, and for himself, Dion appeared to misplace that
famous brain of his shortly after the convention, because his brief time
as leader has been defined not by intellectual vigor but by meekness
and cowardice.

At virtually every major encounter thus
far, Harper has not only bested Dion but done so convincingly. On Canada's
engagement in Afghanistan, Harper was able to conscript Dion into supporting
the broader strokes of his position while removing it as a potential election
issue in the process. On the budget, Dion couldn't muster the courage to vote
against the budget, choosing instead to have his backbenchers either abstain
from the vote or miss it altogether, thus depriving his party of yet another
piece of critical election ammunition. On the Conservatives' controversial
immigration bill that introduces political influence into the immigration process
and threatens the vaunted Liberal vision of diversity, multiculturalism, and
the role that immigration plays in it, Dion has similarly signalled an
unwillingness to make his party's votes count for anything.

These failures could, mind you,
be more about bad tactics and strategy than a lack of intellectual resolve. But
his incompetence in dealing with Bill C-484, Conservative MP Ken Epp's
transparent attempt to subvert Canada's abortion laws, on the other hand,
defies any rational explanation. Bill C-484, the proposed unborn victims of
crime act, would make it a separate crime to kill a fetus during a criminal act
against its mother. With respect to Canada's existing abortion laws this bill
is the most obvious of Trojan horses, an attempt to confer rights on the unborn
fetus. Those rights, according to Gaétan Barrette, head of Quebec's Federation
of Specialist Doctors, "…will allow someone to go to the Supreme Court
and say 'Look, you've passed Bill 484. And because of that, you implicitly
gave rights to this fetus. And if the fetus has rights, then abortion should be
illegal because it is a murder."

It is understandable that
members of the public not versed in the legalities of abortion laws would be
deceived by the subterfuge, and that those who would otherwise be pro-choice
might support Mr. Epp's bill. But it is not understandable that someone as politically experienced as Stephane Dion could
fail to appreciate the importance of the bill. Yet during the second reading of
the bill 27 members of his caucus voted in support of the bill and 11,
including Dion himself, didn't even bother to show up. Abortion rights advocates
across the country haven't been nearly as timid, describing it as a legally
impotent tool that whose only effect, and indeed its desired one, would be to
pave the way for the re-criminalization of abortion. They reject Mr. Epp's
assertion that the bill is simply an effort to protect women, arguing that
Canada's hate crimes legislation already has a gender clause that can be used
when violence is committed against pregnant women, and that judges have always
had the option of enhancing the charges in such circumstances. That Dion has
been either unable or unwilling to bring a similar degree of intellectual
clarity to such an important debate is puzzling.

One of Dion's few remaining
supporters might argue that the outcome of a vote on the second reading of a
private member's bill is insignificant, or that he's allowing members to vote
according to their conscience on a matter of moral significance. Yet those
would be rationalizations at best, and unsatisfactory ones at that. Mr. Epp's
bill has passed second reading and moved on to the committee stage, putting it
dangerously close to becoming important. Worse still, Jean-François Del
Torchio, Dion's media attaché, couldn't confirm if Dion plans to instruct
Liberals to vote against it during its third and final reading. If Dion wanted
to let his backbenchers vote according to their conscience, shouldn't he at least
have insisted that they do so on a bill that presents the question in a
straightforward and unambiguous manner? Shouldn't Dion, the author of the
Clarity Act, have insisted on a similar degree of intellectual honesty with
respect to this equally important issue?

Stephane Dion will get one last
chance to redeem himself, both among the Liberals who elected him as their
leader and the Canadians who may yet make him Prime Minister. But for that to
happen, he needs to re-awaken the renowned intellect that propelled him from
the classrooms in Quebec City in the 1990s to Ottawa, into cabinet, and eventually
into the leader's chair. If he doesn't, all the macho affectations in the
world won't do him any good in his first and perhaps only election as leader of
the Liberal Party of Canada. And, for what it's worth, if Belinda Stronach starts
expounding on the intricacies of monetary policy or the nature of identity in a
multicultural society, you might want to check behind her ears for scars.

Toronto, April 25 – 1,083 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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