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PostPosted: Fri Feb 22, 2008 1:22 pm
 


Repeat retreats leave Dion looking weak
Afghanistan ultimatum was bluster for benefit of Liberals' Montreal faithful
Lorne Gunter, Freelance
Published: 4:37 am
EDMONTON - Who knows, Stephane Dion might be a closet Albertan.

It is said of Alberta's weather that if you don't like it, wait a minute. Well, the same could be said of the federal Liberal leader's policy positions: They change as quickly and abruptly as a spring day in Alberta.

Perhaps at heart Dion is really an Alberta weatherman.

His predecessor as Liberal chief, Paul Martin, became known as Mr. Dithers for his inability to make up his mind. Dion doesn't have that trouble; he makes up his mind again and again. Dion is a hyperactive decision-maker.

Consider the many alterations Dion made on his Afghan stance to get to Thursday's "compromise" with the Tories over extending Canada's mission.

(I put "compromise" in quotation marks because what the Liberals agree to, whether they will admit it or not, is essentially what the Tories have been seeking all along. The deal is a "compromise" in name only.)

In January, Dion blustered that he was prepared to bring down the Tory minority if the government refused to end our combat role in Afghanistan as planned in February 2009. This, of course, after he had briefly suggested invading Pakistan, a threat he also later claimed he hadn't meant.

In early February, the leader of the opposition then marched into the prime minister's office and declared himself "absolutely unwavering" on his central Afghan demand -- that by this time next year our troops be out of Kandahar and well behind the front lines, training the Afghan army and building roads and schools.

Following his meeting with Stephen Harper, Dion's office insisted he had "made clear the Liberal party's long-standing position ... our firm and unwavering belief that the combat mission in Kandahar must end by February 2009."

But this firm, long-standing position was always as much electoral spin as sincere policy belief. And after Dion issued his Afghan ultimatums, electoral reality slithered up and sunk its pointy fangs firmly into his backside.

The Liberals essentially rely on four metropolitan areas for their support -- Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. These are the four pillars of the Liberals' electoral world. And they are losing their grip on Montreal.

There can be little doubt Dion's original hardline stance was designed to appeal to his party's pacifist activists in its pillar cities, particularly Montreal. The mission is the least popular in Quebec (even if it has more support -- about 40 to 45 per cent -- than most Canadians outside Quebec imagine).

And if the Grits fail to hold on to the fewer than a dozen seats they have in Montreal now, they can kiss goodbye their ambitions of retaking the national government.

So Dion got all tough and prickly for the benefit of Montreal voters. He said repeatedly through the media to Harper: Get us out of Kandahar or face an election.

But then that electoral-reality snake reared its head.

The Liberal caucus is (or was before the "compromise") bitterly divided over Afghanistan, with a hawkish wing every bit as adamant that Canada stay and fight as the dovish wing is committed to cutting and running. And the hawkish wing is headed by Dion's main leadership rival, Michael Ignatieff.
To paper over his party's internal

divides (and forestall a challenge from Ignatieff), Dion had to climb down from his original position.

Then there is the reality that the Liberals have no money.

Having relied for so long on large corporate donors -- who are no longer permitted by law -- the Liberals have little clue how to woo small, individual donors.

In 2007, the Tories out-raised them by almost three-to-one. Liberal donations fell by more than half, from nearly $11 million in 2006 to under $5 million.

If they forced an election now, they would have to fight the Tories using mostly borrowed money, on top of a nagging debt of more than $2 million from the last election.

So the Liberals appear to have "compromised" on a motion to extend the Afghan mission that is far from Dion's "unwavering" demands of just two weeks ago, and very near what the Tories have been asking for all along.

Instead of withdrawing from combat by February 2009 and withdrawing from Afghanistan altogether two years later, the Tories conciliation motion extends the mission to December 2011, six months longer than the government originally asked for. And rather than getting us out of combat within 12 months, the new motion gives our commanders in Afghanistan the power to keep us in combat for almost 36 more months.

A similar back-down by Dion appears to be coming on next week's budget. Less than a week ago he threatened that the budget, too, was an election trigger; then Monday, he said his party might pass the budget if it was "not too harmful for the Canadian economy."

Harper has Dion dangling by a string, not the other way around. And until the Liberal leader realizes that, he is going to continue to look weak with his threat/retreat, threat/retreat strategy.

lgunter@shaw.ca


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