Unravelling Dion’s Political Strategy

Though my attention is tuned to our federal election, this post doesn’t continue the IP political issues I wrote detailing a stance against certain sorts of “intellectual property” regulation (NDP seems to address it best, though Dion provided a reasonable response to my letter). I’ll go on a tangent today: Stéphane Dion’s campaign strategy is so shrewd he’s already slashed through Harper’s pawns and promoted his own queen. I haven’t witnessed anyone say that, so I’ll take a shot at what I think Dion’s done.

The other morning as I walked to work, I was puzzling over the parties’ bizarre responses to letting/not letting Elizabeth May into the televised debates. Here’s my theory: Dion’s liberals have the more likely chance of forming the next government. Dion’s strategy has nonchalently been in play over quite a few months. In spite of how the media and ads are portraying the situation, Dion and the liberals are in fact on the offensive while the conservatives have been on the defensive.

To understand that, think about the justification for, and the process that takes place upon the Governor General disolving the minority government and then what must occur after the election if the party only wins a plurality.

Side note: I am not writing this from the perspective of a Liberal fanboy (in case my little hint at the beginning of this post wasn’t clear). I’m just enjoying some interesting strategies.

Maybe my statement/prediction sounds off base at first glance–I think these are main elements at play in the strategy and I’ll explain what I see in each.

  • Dion/May riding agreement
  • Main Conservative campaign principle is to attack Dion’s character
  • A real record now exists of Conservative deeds
  • Green party popularity has been rising
  • The leaders’ perspectives on letting Elizabeth May debate
  • Voter intentions (polls) have shown, throughout the run of this government, a sort of political stasis

The Dion/May Riding Agreement

Back in early 2007 Dion and May worked out a deal not to run candidates in each others’ ridings. Most news organizations and pundits discussed the issues in terms of how it bolstered public perception of Dion’s green credentials and added to the feeling that he’s a different, more respectable sort of politician, while it gave May a much better chance of beating Conservative Peter MacKay for the Central Nova riding (personally, I dislike the exchange because I think it semi-disenfranchises voters). However, none of that is very important. It was a well-calculated part of the Liberal strategy for a totally different reason, and I’ll say why this was actually important at the end.

Main Conservative Campaign Principle is to Attack Dion’s Character

Recall when Dion won his position in the Liberal party, the Conservatives began their campaigns (quite effectively) to drive a negative public perception of Dion. Notable is the Conservative-inspired impression that Dion is not a strong leader. It was backed by their use of weak-looking images and especially by how they framed his lack of bringing down the government on a series of confidence votes. It worked. The repetition of the weak leader meme stuck. It made its way into all the news media and citizens continued uncritically repeating the characterization until its become a hallmark of any debate about Dion. The importance and repetition the Conservatives put on this reveals their focus on character assassination as opposed to real tangible issues, it all sunk to a new low today with the puffin poop campaign gaff.

A Real Record Now Exists of Conservative Deeds

Does Dion lack leadership because of his temporary unwillingness to force an election on Harper’s orchestrated series of confidence vote landmines? Consider the major basis for the claim–the lack of bringing down the government–it doesn’t really stand up. I’m fairly certain that every party has at some point during the last few governments, voted in a way (or abstained) to avoid bringing down a government in a confidence vote, even though the party opposed the vote in principle. Why? Because it wouldn’t have benefited the given party’s situation to engage the country in an election at that moment. Same thing with the current Liberal situation.

Considering that the Conservative party hadn’t formed a government before, most of the negative arguments opponents could make against it were hypothetical or fear-based (just consider how the meme of “what’s Harper hiding” still floats). Letting the Conservative party get to work with its agenda could only provide the Liberals (and other parties) with real tangible issues and evidence to campaign against. The longer the liberals waited (as official opposition), the more opportunity they’d garner to point out the Conservatives’ lousy policies, mismanagement, or corrupt cover-ups. For example:

1) Lousy policy –> consider the bill C-61, that has spawned enormous public demonstration against its ridiculous rules and the harmful results it would wreak on Canadian freedoms and culture. Danny Williams made dissatisfaction with the Conservative/Atlantic Accord situation quite public. What about Conservative dismantling of support for fostering Canadian culture? Conservative cuts to the court challenges program? Negligent treatment of the environmental mess, which Layton has been calling attention to? Or how about the Tories shameful lack of direction and action on Kyoto.

2) Mismanagement –> no better example than the 200 page Conservative book on how to obstruct parliament (this alone ought to have incensed every Canadian citizen). Parliament is dysfunctional, indeed.

3) Corruption cover-ups –> Between the Cadman affair and the investigation into their campaign spending.

In other words, it could be argued that Dion was letting the Conservatives get their hands dirty enough to offer real issues of shame rather than hypothetical ones for the Liberals to condemn.

Green Party Popularity Has Been Rising

Where might the votes go? Think about the last election, in which Paul Martin’s version of the Liberal party was ousted largely because of its sponsorship scandal. To which of the major parties would disaffected Liberal voters turn? I suppose any right of centre or centre ones would likely go to the Conservatives. Some centre and left of centre ones would probably consider the NDP or Greens. Of course the NDP and Greens have their own base of voters, they also probably galvanize some voters that wouldn’t vote at all. Isn’t it interesting that in all the polls that keep getting published in the major newspapers, Green support seems to be rising this time around?

The Leaders’ Perspectives on Letting Elizabeth May Debate

Now, about the televised debates. The record seems to be that Harper, Layton, and Duceppe didn’t want May in the debates but Dion did. How does this fit a superficial conventional view? Wouldn’t you think it’d be Harper that wanted May in the debates but not Dion? After all, shouldn’t the Conservatives feel that the Greens are competition for the same voters that would otherwise likely consider the Liberals (or NDP)? Shouldn’t Dion be worried about that, especially when polls show the Liberals currently chasing the Conservatives? One might think Harper worries about the environmental pounding he’ll get from all the other candidates… which he more or less admits, claiming that it’s unfair to have two parties debating on the same platform (I paraphrase his stance on the Liberals and Greens). But that doesn’t explain Dion and Layton’s positions.

Layton brought scorn on himself with his position against having May in the debates. It felt uncharacteristic and contrary to the spirit NDP supporters usually express [Update 10 Aug. Layton and Harper changed their stances, so May will debate]. And Dion’s positive support of May debating–if he was really worried about the Greens getting voters that might otherwise vote Liberal, you’d expect him to have a different position. No. Dion seems to want to help, in an indirect way, the Green party gain popularity. I think his strategy almost requires that the Greens get a few seats and if they get them at the expense of the NDP or if the Greens got prior Liberal voters that Liberals cannot woo back, so much the better.

It fits well with the Dion/May riding deal that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Dion helps May win her riding in exchange for what? What could the Liberals get from key Green wins? A coalition.

Voter Intentions (Polls) Have Shown, throughout the Run of this Government, a Sort of Political Stasis

Polls have indicated over the period of this Conservative minority government that an election will result in little difference in the distribution of MPs. The Conservatives remain in minority territory. Harper was essentially forced to call an election, cutting his losses before his opportunities (with the economy and scandals) worsened. He did this very publicly under the flimsy auspice of a dysfunctional parliament.

But if the election results in roughly the same distribution of MPs, we can’t simply go back to the exact same minority conservative government. Liberal strategy shines here. None of the parties agreed that parliament could function in that minority situation. Clearly we cannot re-elect a dysfunctional government. So we have to turn to the alternative.

A re-elected Conservative minority means Governor General Michaëlle Jean, will have to ask the leader of the opposition to form the new government or else have a fresh election (which I don’t think would be very effective). The opposition party Liberals are in this position and could form an effective coalition with the Green party (no other coalition combination makes as much sense). In other words electing Green party MPs, especially in Conservative- or NDP-contested ridings will help a Liberal/Green coalition to govern. (The other parties must have recognized that in their original stances against letting May into the debates.)

Dion’s riding swapping strategy and push to have May in the debates = shrewd. His delay in bringing down the Conservatives = useful for the campaign. The Conservatives’ only choice, if they wish to form the next government, is to get a majority, existing polls show that’s not yet likely. Besides, remember how Dion won the Liberal leadership in the first place? Similar approach. He worked out arrangements with people that were unlikely to win and obtained their base of support. The Conservatives have been on the defensive for quite some time acting like they’re on the offensive but I suspect “underdog” Dion layed his strategy and has the upper hand.

(16 Sep. 08 — Ok, it dawned on me that I short-cutted a bit of reasoning here. The parliamentary web site that I referenced above for why the Governor General would have to ask the opposition leader to form the new gov’t, actually includes some stuff in between. Still, I assume that if the votes tally up a Conservative minority, the opposition will immediately vote down a confidence motion and thus secure itself the governing mandate.)

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