As the Conservatives roll out their latest attack ads against Stephane Dion, the nation's media are beginning to shine a spotlight on the Leader of the Opposition. Linda Diebel, of The Toronto Star, has just published Against the Current, the first full length study of Mr. Dion in English. And, last week, Lawrence Martin devoted a column to Dion in The Globe and Mail. Mr. Martin clearly admires Mr. Dion's integrity; but he laments Dion's fractured fluency in English. However, as those of us who grew up as Quebec Anglophones can attest, getting your tongue around any word which is more than two syllables in the other language takes some practice. Martin concludes, somewhat sadly, that "Mr. Dion is a gentleman and a scholar. In politics, that combination, as honourable as it is, has rarely been a winning one."
Susan Riley, of The Ottawa Citizen, has a much more upbeat assessment of Dion. While admitting that Dion appears to have a somewhat shrill superiority complex -- she quotes a Quebec satirist who claims that Dion has the "indignant air of a granny who's found a dirty hair in her tisane" -- he also has the courage to speak truth to power: He "has fearlessly marched into battle against Quebec's sovereigntist elite, stood up to an intimidating Prime Minister Jean Chretien ('This is not a time for joking,' he once famously admonished his boss, before startled cabinet colleagues) and has never hesitated to challenge illogical arguments or historic distortions."
That is why the latest ads smack of ignorance and arrogance. They hearken back to ads which the Conservative Party ran five elections ago -- the ones with the unflattering picture of Jean Chretien's lopsided mouth -- which were withdrawn within three days (after Chretien quipped that, of course, he only spoke out of one side of his mouth, unlike the Conservatives who spoke out of both sides of theirs.) Canada's "new" government seems to be stuck with some pretty old and ineffective communication strategies.
Perhaps that explains why the Conservatives, after riding a wave with their new budget, have seen their numbers sink back into the thirty percent range. The Liberals are also stuck in the same neighbourhood. And Mr. Dion is not without critics in his own party. Sometime ago, Raymond Heard -- a former news director at CanWest Global and now a Liberal Party operative -- bitterly criticized Dion for his election compact with Elizabeth May (the leader of the Green Party) claiming with Andrew Coyne, of The National Post, that Dion has moved the party too far to the left.
And Mr. Martin's concern about Mr. Dion's flawed English certainly has something to do with the general anxiety that Dion won't be able to sell his vision in places like Saskatoon. On top of that, Mr.Dion -- by his own admission -- is not a natural politician. Readers of this blog will remember that I did not foresee Mr. Dion' s victory at the Liberal leadership convention (see my post for October 4, 2006).
I too was worried about Mr. Dion's ability to communicate with English Canada. But I should have remembered that, when Jean Chretien arrived in Ottawa back in 1963, he didn't speak a word of English. Some would say that he never did quite get the hang of the language. But, despite his tortured syntax (which, by the way, was as tortured in French as it was in English) Canadians instinctively felt that Chretien, like him or not, only spoke out of one side of his mouth. They eventually came to see what Mitchell Sharp, that wise old man of the Liberal Party, saw in the young Chretien when Sharp took him under his wing. And, with time, Chretien developed into a very effective leader.
The question is, how much time has Mr. Dion got? For the moment, any election plans are on hold. I suspect that time will work in Mr. Dion's favour.