Dion's defining moments
There is a suspicion out there that Stéphane Dion is a man of honour, a politician of dignity with true character.
True character is the reverse of trying to be all things to all people. It means not seeking others' approval. When, as a political leader, you stop doing that, and just be the essential you, people want some of what you've got, some of that core. You're the magnetic field.
But politics is about selling, reaching out, pandering. And so here was Stéphane Dion in his first week as Liberal leader, already in the grip of the ugly claws of the enterprise. He was faced with a middling controversy over whether he should maintain his dual French citizenship. It was a sensitive issue for him, one that cut to his heart and, in responding, he got testy.
His answer was sound enough, but he couldn't help thinking of the political equation. Well, if maintaining my French citizenship loses me votes, he said, he might have to reconsider. In other words, let's cast aside the principle involved here and make a decision on the basis of politics.
That wasn't the man of honour talking. It was hardly the new politics. It was an example of him looking over his shoulder, seeing the dark shadow of pollsters in pursuit, about to smother the light within.
If Canadians see more of that, they will lump Stéphane Dion with the others and his advantage will disappear. Opponents sense his appeal, his self-contained piety. They see it in the polls and are out to drag him down to their level. No one can remain unsullied in this game, they think. We'll get him.
So here was Stephen Harper in the House of Commons Tuesday, coming at Mr. Dion with a calumny almost in league with Richard Rich's slandering of Thomas More. Your record on the environment, the Prime Minister hollered is “no different than the record of Alfonso Gagliano on accountability.”
The cerebral Quebecker turned his head away in despair as the acolytes on the government benches — forgetting that their own global-warming record is one of shamefaced foot-dragging — bellowed their approval of their PM's odious comparison.
Stephen Harper has an impressive skill set. He had a chance, himself, to bring more honour to governance. But since the opening bell when he elevated a floor-crosser and an unelected senator to his Cabinet, he has shown himself to be a leader whose abiding imperative is political opportunism. His Senate reform, announced yesterday, which would allow voters at last some say in Senate appointments, is a step forward that he need not have framed in the context of political partisanship. His brazen approach in this regard has cost him, as voters, turned off by this kind of politics, have responded with declining approval ratings.
Hence the Dion opening is all the greater. The Leader of the Opposition must find a way to resist the temptation to respond in kind to the cheap attacks and slanders. To succeed, to avoid being dragged down into the brothel, the rules of engagement are many: He must be a champion of principle. He must remain stoic, keeping the level of discourse high and noble, holding to his true character. He must, while letting other caucus members tackle the seamy questions, be seen as frequently as possible with the other tower of integrity in the Liberal thicket, Ken Dryden. Mr. Dion must avoid overexposure and he must avoid the big type of position change — remember John Turner's accepting Pierre Trudeau's list of patronage appointments in 1984 — that can be so damaging to the stature of a leader.
There have been others who have come to the big job unsullied, only to be pulled down into the sludge. They stopped being themselves.
Few have had the opportunity Stéphane Dion now possesses. He can do something greater than score a win for his party. He can bring respect to what Liberal Stan Keyes once fittingly labelled “a whore's game.”