It’s definitely been the craziest two weeks in Canadian politics I’ve seen in my lifetime. But lost in all the recent developments is that were Stephen Harper not such a coward and suspended Parliament in the middle of an economic crisis simply because he had no ideas on how to solve it (except for beating up his opponents and pandering to his base), Stéphane Dion would have become Prime Minister earlier today due to Stephen Harper losing the confidence of the House the day before. With Stéphane officially relinquishing the leadership shortly I thought it appropriate to give him the appropriate due as he goes. He's certainly had a formidable career.
Stéphane Dion didn’t choose to go to Ottawa, but when he was called I don’t think anyone could deny that he gave everything he could to his country and his party.
As Intergovernmental Affairs Minister he put Lucien Bouchard in his place, beat back the separatists, advanced federalism, and drafted the clarity act so that should the PQ hold another referendum they’ll have to fight it fairly. Yet despite Dion’s now universally approved performance he was dropped from the Paul Martin cabinet. But he never complained, he remained a party stalwart through and through and in the end he was credited with saving several Quebec ridings from defeat in the dying days of the 2004 election. Dion got another chance to prove himself as Environment Minister and again he didn’t disappoint. He brought forward a plan to meet our Kyoto targets (much of which the Conservatives scrapped and later re-instituted after wasting a year) and brought together over 180 countries at the Montreal conference to come to a consensus agreement on a way forward post-Kyoto. As Elizabeth May has said, "anyone who says he was anything other than an excellent Environment Minister is simply making it up".
In his race for Liberal leader he managed to go from getting snide remarks like “even Stéphane Dion has entered the race” to coming out on top in the end, which considering who he was up against was no small feat. As Liberal leader he made lots of mistakes (as every leader does), almost of all of which he has owned up to (something it seems we'll never see from Stephen Harper) but many other problems were beyond his control (such as being heavily outmatched financially as the Conservative attack ads flooded the airwaves). I'll leave it for others to dwell on his mistakes though. Less often talked about is how despite not getting the electoral results we hoped for, we enhanced the Liberal brand on 3 issues that we were not exceptionally known for before: infrastructure, poverty, and the environment. While in the midst of the economic crisis everyone is talking about the first as a way of helping us out of it, no one can doubt the Liberals put forth the strongest plan in the last election. While we aren’t hearing as much about fighting poverty and combating climate change these days Stéphane Dion’s championing of these issues has ensured that no Liberal leader will possibly do anything other that keep them central in our future platforms. When the environment comes back to the fore again as it surely will thanks at least in part to Dion’s efforts the Liberals will no doubt have a strong environmental platform that puts other parties to shame.
Dion also stood up strongly for human rights in a way that will set the bar high for all future leaders. It wasn’t popular but he defended Omar Khadr’s right to fair trial. He also spoke out strongly against the death penalty, for ratifying the UN Treaty on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, and he put in his platform a vow in implement a Corporate Social Responsibility Framework for Canadian mining companies operating overseas (an issue I had championed in the past). These issues may not be in the forefront of Canadians minds but I’ll always respect any leader willing to stand up for them as strongly as Stéphane has.
We all know how the election turned out, but I do think in the debates he put all the caricatures of him to shame. It’s too bad Canadians couldn’t see the real Stéphane more often, but such is the political game.
Since the election I think he performed well in the House and I believe ALL Liberals should be incredibly thankful that he stopped Stephen Harper’s attempt to remove public financing dead in its tracks. Had he not negotiated the coalition Harper may not have backed down and we could have been right back into another election or been forced to support his fiscal update . I’m really not sure if anyone else could have pulled off the kind of agreement Stéphane did that didn’t really sacrifice ANY Liberal policies or principles whatsoever in the coalition accord with the exception of the Green Shift (that it was clear could not be implemented when the two parties that supported did not receive more than 1/3 of the votes in the last campaign). If he had stepped down after the campaign then I think the Liberal Party and its future might be in much greater jeopardy today. Instead, with the coalition in place we actually have a possibility to form government should Stephen Harper continue his reckless approach to the economy and fail to substantially reach out to the opposition parties in the presentation of his budget. I do hope the coalition holds and since I don’t think Stephen Harper has it in him to actually meaningfully compromise and govern based on the policies a majority of Canadians voted for, I hope the coalition does vote him down and take power on Jan. 28. If that comes to pass then I think Stéphane Dion would be pleased to know that one of his last acts as leader was to put together an agreement that did in the end bring Liberals back to power. I'm sorry that Stephane couldn't lead the coalition in government for even a few months, but he stepped down in order to better ensure the coalition could be successful and accepted both by the Governor General and the general public. Once again Dion put the interests of the country ahead of his own.
If the coalition doesn't take power and Stephen Harper is able to continue governing we can at least know that because of Stephane’s efforts with the coalition, Stephen Harper has been chastened and finally forced in govern in the interests of a majority of Canadians.
But unfortunately despite all the good I feel Stéphane Dion did, I really think there are few politicians who’ve taken as many hits as he has. He's admitedly not the best retail politician but I question how many others could successfuly withstand the onslaught he's faced. First from the separatists and the Quebec media who literally did everything they could to savage his reputation and then the Harper Conservatives who tried the same but this time unfortunately with millions of dollars to be able to do it more effectively and in some ways with help from the media who never missed an opportunity to savage Dion when they could. Dion took the bullet on the Green Shift, a policy that would have likely been our policy in the last election even if Stephane wasn’t our leader. I still believe in that policy, but I guess we found out there’s still much work to be done to convince Canadians of it. Stéphane Dion took a beating form the Con and the media though because of it. But through it all, no matter what was thrown at him, Dion never wavered in his commitment to his country and his party and retained his honesty and integrity until the end of his leadership.
Right now most of the pundits and even many Liberals may look poorly on Stéphane’s time as leader, but I’ll leave any of those criticisms to others. Regardless, I do think (and hope) history will in the end see him much better and come to see the positive contributions he made in a much better light. It was nice to see such a positive acknowledgement from Jack Layton, I guess it was too much to expect the same from someone with as little class as Stephen Harper.
I hope we won’t have seen the last of Stéphane Dion as a prominent figure in Canadian politics, I believe he still could make great contributions, but if he decides in the next several months to retire from political life I do think he leaves with a lot to be proud of. Politics is so often a thankless job and I’m sure Stéphane has come to that realization as well, but I know I’m far from alone in being proud of what he accomplished. People of his character are definitely a rarity in politics.
So thus ends one chapter and begins a new one. Very shortly we will have a new leader in Michael Ignatieff and we can all turn our focus back where it belongs: on the appalling government Stephen Harper leads and on rebuilding our party together in the ways it needs to in order to be the strongest national party again. Canadians expect and desire no less.
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