After Michael Ignatieff took over as leader of the Liberal Party, it became hard to know that Stéphane Dion was still an MP. On election night 2011, it must have been a surprise to some that Dion had re-offered in his riding, and was re-elected, even while the orange wave swept Quebec.
By his own admission, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Dion purposely kept a low profile during Mr. Ignatieff's tenure, stating that he was concerned about statements by him being interpreted as contradictions of the then-Liberal leader.
However, in the aftermath of the 2011 election, there has been a political resurrection of Mr. Dion. He is more visible in Parliament, actively taking part in question period. As well, his overall role has been more high profile. He played an active part in criticizing Jack Layton's wavering on the question of the threshold for Quebec sovereignty, on whether 50 per cent plus one is enough for Quebec independence (a threshold that would almost certainly be too low, as per the Clarity Act, which Mr. Dion authored as Jean Chrétien's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister).
Mr. Dion also gained attention as a Liberal observer at the NDP's convention in Vancouver, with some New Democrats even calling on him to join their party, though others were less receptive to him. Mr. Dion stated that many of the NDPers he met at the convention were nice people who had voted for him in 2008, an obvious contrast to the Liberals' 2011 performance.
As well, Mr. Dion has taken a leading role in critiquing the Harper government based on the released documents on detainees in Afghanistan, calling out contradictions between the documents and Conservative government statements and raising questions about the handing over of prisoners by Canadian authorities to groups in Afghanistan who employed torture.
Mr. Dion is the type of person many say they want in politics. He is principled and has a vision for Canada: on environmental conservation and on protection of national unity through the Clarity Act. He is not a typical career politician, being an academic who was recruited by Jean Chrétien on the advice of his wife after the near victory of the "yes" side in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Mr. Dion is someone who entered politics with a purpose -- protecting national unity.
However, his short tenure as Liberal leader was a rocky one. He faced criticisms for poor communication skills, given his heavily accented English, and for lacking charisma.
His initiatives were widely deemed by the media and political opponents as unsuccessful. This included his Green tax shift, which would have penalized polluting activities, the agreement to not field a candidate against Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the riding she was running in, and the 2008 coalition with the NDP, which had Bloc support on key confidence motions (a coalition that formed the basis of Conservative attacks in the 2011 election).
To praise Mr. Dion at the time, one felt part of a minority, against the tide of popular opinion. The Liberal loss in seats in 2008 was widely blamed on Mr. Dion; however, in retrospect, that loss was not so bad compared to 2011, when the Liberals finished third and leader Michael Ignatieff lost his own seat; a loss that has served, in part, as a redemption for Mr. Dion. Looking back, Mr. Dion was a leader ahead of his time in many ways; someone who could prospectively be viewed alongside Ed Broadbent and Robert Stanfield as one of the "greatest prime ministers we never had" -- a title that can carry as much prestige as actually having been prime minister.
While the growing talk of "uniting the left" by merging the Liberals and NDP may seem drastic to some in both parties, it does highlight the benefits of cooperation and the fact that Liberal-NDP acrimony has benefited Stephen Harper. In this light, Mr. Dion clearly recognized this with his proposed coalition government and with his earlier cooperation with the Green Party leader.
Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella recently wrote that one of Mr. Ignatieff's big mistakes as leader was abandoning the coalition in 2008 -- a further redemption of Mr. Dion's initiative.
With the Liberal Party seeking to define its purpose, dealing with allegations that it does not stand for anything, Dion's appeal as a principled candidate with clear positions on issues such as national unity and the environment is all the more appealing. While some voters found him uncharismatic, many others admired his principle, conviction, and sense of purpose.
Mr. Dion's return to the political spotlight is long overdue and well deserved. He is someone with a lot to contribute to the Liberal Party as it seeks to rebuild, and is someone who has a great deal to contribute to Canadian political life as a whole.
This blog also appeared in the Telegraph Journal.
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