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Grits Pick Wonk

Stephane Dion emerged the winner in Montreal. But can he beat Stephen Harper?

By Richard Warnica 4 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Stephane Dion, a bookish wonk and son of a popular French-Canadian intellectual became leader of Canada’s most dominant political machine Saturday in a tense four-ballot contest in Montreal. 

Dion, a cabinet minister under both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, was best known before the campaign as a champion of national unity. He was recruited from the University of Montreal after the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum and served as the government’s point man on Quebec for most of the next seven years.

The former professor, 50, ran his campaign on a three-pillar platform of environment, economy and social justice. But it was the first plank, environment, for which he became best known; Dion supporters at the Liberal leadership convention were draped in green and many wore buttons with a dog’s paw insignia, a reference to Kyoto, Dion’s Siberian Husky.

Many painted Dion as the outsider’s pick in this contest. The party’s “grey beards,” as the Star’s Jim Travers put it, were supposed to be split between the two front-runners, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. However, Dion has his share of establishment support. Paul Martin’s former top B.C. organizer, Mark Marissen, ran his campaign and most of the party’s B.C. bigwigs were also on board.

The Tyee’s Laura Drake reported live from the convention all week. Among the highlights were painfully boring, confusing and seemingly meaningless policy meetings and the terribly opaque selection process for alternate delegates. (This one is worth a click through, I promise.)

Reaction to Dion’s victory among the punditry was mixed Sunday. Many seemed to like the man a lot more than they liked his electoral chances.

The Star’s Jim Travers called the Liberals pick “an uncharacteristic fit of idealism over pragmatism” before going on to say that it “hands Stephen Harper’s Conservatives a priceless gift.”

Greg Weston was, if possible, more blunt. “The prime minister should be laughing all the way to the polls,” the Sun chain columnist wrote. "In choosing the professorial Quebec MP to lead the grits into the next election, the Liberal party has taken a turn for the bland, if not towards electoral abyss."

The Tyee’s J. Kelly Nestruck, however, begs to differ. "Liberals consistently do better across the country with francophone leaders than they do with anglophone ones," he wrote on Election Central, adding that Dion represents "generational change; he’s the first major party leader to put the environment front and centre in his politics."

Pundits, though, played an unforgettable role in Dion's rise. The first big names on his bandwagon were arguably the three biggest names in Canadian journo-blogging: Paul Wells, Colby Cosh and Andrew Coyne.

What’s remarkable is that none of the three are reliably liberal; Coyne and Cosh are indisputable conservatives, while Wells has almost become a Canadian political persuasion unto himself. 

What ties the three together is that they all once wrote for Ken Whyte’s National Post. Chew on that for a while. Canada’s Liberals just elected a leader who ran on social justice and the environment and who’s earliest backers were three of the biggest bylines from the most reliably conservative newspaper in recent Canadian history. Funny country, Canada.  [Tyee]

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