Cold Hard Wonk

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Driving to Distraction

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday March 5, 2007 at 8:26 pm)

At long last, Liberal leader Stephane Dion has realized what he should have known back in December: three months’ worth of Parliamentary debate aren’t worth seventeen days of speaking directly to local crowds.

The going rate for live Hansard performance isn’t what’s at issue here, though. It’s the virtue of his whirlwind bus tour (amid whirlwinds) of Canada, setting out his platform.

Which is a fantastic idea for several reasons:

Getting His Legs
Having sought the leadership on a tripod of “Prosperity, Social Justice and Sustainability”, Dion came to Ottawa with a monopod of “environment, environment, environment”. The most obvious change in his approach is the rediscovery of, at least, social justice, and possibly even prosperity:

We will argue that there cannot be true prosperity without social justice, that good social policies make for a stronger economy.

And, as everyone knows, three legs are better than one.
Standing on His Own Two Feet
The main problem with being in opposition is having to oppose. When the government keeps bringing out announcements, your time can be utterly consumed in preparing responses. That means that the government sets the agenda and tone of the debate. Perhaps the greatest failing of the Liberals’ campaign in the last election was leaving the Conservatives to set the agenda unopposed. By taking off, unhindered by the close presence of his opponents, Dion gains a series of open forums to spread his message. With luck, it will let him set the agenda, while the Prime Minister remains hamstrung by the daily surprises of government.

But there are challenges ahead. What they are should be fairly obvious from the tack Dion’s chosen to take:

“We will argue that there cannot be true prosperity without social justice, that good social policies make for a stronger economy. Canadians deserve to know that their federal government will be there when they need help. And they deserve a federal government willing to help them.”

Which means that he plans to cast the Liberals, once more, in the mantle which they already kind of have: the defenders of Canada’s social programs. By implication, then, the present government is the enemy of those programs.

But both of those claims are old hat. While Dion may be justified in believing that the Liberals didn’t lose the 2006 election over their social program policies, it’s important to remember that they didn’t win it with them, either. That’s true for at least two reasons.

First, that as between the Conservatives and the Liberals, voters already likely to pick the Liberals as the party favoring social programs. But, try as the Liberals did to come up with proposals for new social programs, the election wasn’t fought on that issue, denying them that advantage.

Second, that enough voters came to see Liberal attempts to demonize Conservatives as self-serving and silly. That’s a big reason why voters didn’t think that the Tories’ ascendance would spell the end of health care. And if voters don’t feel that the social safety net is threatened, it won’t be a campaign issue.

Which is why Dion is trying to show that the Tories are breaking down the social safety net. He baldly claimed as much in Question Period in the Commons last Tuesday:

Stéphane Dion: Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister uses fiscal policy to enforce his neo-Conservative ideology. He attacks women’s equality. He attacks funding for literacy. He attacks the poor and vulnerable and he restricts their access to the courts, all by slashing their budgets.

Will the Prime Minister stop his campaign of intimidation against decent Canadians? Or will we same more of the same unfair treatment in the next budget?

And on his tour, he’s trying to substantiate it:

He said that, if elected prime minister, he will reinstitute programs cut by the Tories, such as the multi-billion-dollar daycare subsidies negotiated by former Liberal minister Ken Dryden.

“For this province, Mr. Harper will cut $97-million in investment in child care,” Mr. Dion said in a speech in Dartmouth. “Imagine how much it will hurt your families. No more. We will restore the Dryden plan for Nova Scotia and for Canada as a whole.”

But this attempt will likely fail to net him votes. Why not? It’s not that the accusation of intimidation is patently the same silly demonization that has failed before. Neither is it that the child care plan in question was both a laughably minimal investment and poorly chosen (if endearing) priority (it was). It’s that the fact that the investment was so minimal that its cancellation isn’t likely to cause the widespread concern on which Dion hopes to rely; and hence, there is not enough loss to make the accusations ring true.

His claim that the loss of $97 Million hurt local families is true; but given that that amount would only create 650 daycare spaces (or, at most, partially fund 6500 existing spaces) in a province with over 40,000 children of eligible age, it’s incredibly unlikely that the program was widely-enough implemented for its loss to be broadly felt. More likely, in Nova Scotia as in Ontario, the funds were used to prop up existing funding programs for the poorest working families. Those voters were never likely to vote Conservative if they were likely to vote at all.

Which means that while Harper works on the professional, centrist voters, Dion continues the Liberal strategy of fighting over leftist votes with the NDP. Is it any wonder that his efforts thus far suggest votes moving from both parties to the Greens?

The strengths of Dion’s tour must be combined with proposals which move the party forwards to take maximum advantage of his unopposed whistlestop podium. For the moment, he seems to have settled on his predecessor’s approach, burnishing credentials no one doubts his party has. And however polished those issues may be, their shine is only a distraction from the real task: reclaiming the middle ground on which Liberal governments once stood.

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