Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Simpson Touching the 3rd Rail? Most Intriguing.

Is this as close to openly saying it?

I have to give it to Simpson, he's a professional. I don't think there is a columnist in the national news that I respect more than Simpson. I was surprised to read today's supportive but balanced spout on Dion.

In previous columns, Simpson has been supportive of Dion and made efforts to highlight his campaign. So, given the weight of these taken with today's column, I'd say this is as close as Simpson will come to touching the 3rd rail and outright supporting a Liberal candidate.

In case you can't get to the Globe column, here it is:

The most intriguing candidate in the Liberal race

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Stéphane Dion yesterday released a modest but intriguing policy on modifying pensions for those who work past 65, an intelligent bit of thinking about the future shape of the Canadian work force.

Will any delegates at next week's Liberal convention read it, and be swayed to join him? Probably not, because the leadership contest is not, by now, about policies, but character, judgment and who can win the country.

Mr. Dion has presented the most policy-oriented campaign. He's focused on three critical issues: making Canada much greener, improving its competitiveness and, of course, maintaining national unity. He's also run a very smart strategic campaign on a limited budget, impressing a lot of Liberals who gave him little or no chance to win.

A string of cards, however, must fall his way for him to become leader. It's unlikely they all will fall, but an outside chance exists that they could. In which case, Mr. Dion would have pulled off an astonishing political upset and defied most of the party establishment who favour either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae.

The Dion path to victory runs as follows, but be forewarned: The path is complicated.

Mr. Dion finished fourth in the delegate-selection process, about 60 votes behind Gerard Kennedy.

But Mr. Dion slides into third place on the first or second ballot. He does so because he wins more ex-officio support (such as former Treasury Board president Marcel Massé, yesterday) or support from delegates of the four also-rans.

At this point, Mr. Dion's path to victory depends on the deal now being negotiated with the Kennedy camp. The deal is the classic prisoner's dilemma: Whoever is fourth agrees to support whoever is third. So if Mr. Dion is, indeed, third, Mr. Kennedy would go to him. (And vice versa.)

Why might that happen? Partly because of similar policy positions. Partly because too many Kennedy supporters in Ontario cannot abide Mr. Rae, the former NDP premier, and disagree with Mr. Ignatieff's views on Quebec. And partly (largely, perhaps) because if Mr. Kennedy sees himself as an eventual chief, he would want a francophone to be the next leader.

With many Kennedy supporters coming on board, Mr. Dion then jumps ahead of Bob Rae, who was in second place. Mr. Rae then moves to Mr. Dion, who thereby defeats Mr. Ignatieff on the final ballot.

Or, Mr. Ignatieff fades after the second ballot when it becomes clear that he cannot win, so that Mr. Dion faces off against Mr. Rae on the final ballot. Mr. Ignatieff's Quebec supporters largely support Mr. Rae, but his Ontario and Western ones can't abide Mr. Rae and go to Mr. Dion, making the Quebecker a narrow winner.

If, if, if and if. No other candidate has so many imponderables to resolve en route to victory. Yet, it is surprising how many people no longer discount Mr. Dion's admittedly outside chance.

Mr. Dion's strongest asset, and biggest liability, is himself.

He's a man of integrity, courage and intelligence. He demonstrated those characteristics for nine years as a cabinet minister. He survived the grossest abuse in Quebec for his fierce defence of federalism.

Civil servants who worked for him admired his masterly briefs and penetrating questions. He did a fine job on climate change at home and presiding over the United Nations conference on the subject in Montreal.

But, as former cabinet colleagues will attest, Mr. Dion can be dogmatic. He neither suffers fools gladly nor compromises easily. It is significant how few former ministers and MPs he has attracted. He tends to lecture, even hector, those with whom he disagrees. He does not let people down lightly.

He is also from Quebec. His English is good, and getting better, but is not perfect. A lot of Liberals, some of whom would never say so publicly, believe the party has been too long led by Quebeckers.

The movers and shakers of the Quebec Liberal Party, emaciated as it is, don't want Mr. Dion. They think he would be poison in his home province. They are quite likely wrong, but they spread this message outside the province to Mr. Dion's detriment.

With his policy ideas and his ironic positioning as a long-time minister running almost as an outsider against the establishment, Mr. Dion is the most intriguing candidate in the race.

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