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Writing off Dion a risky business 

[PoliticsWatch updated 4:45 p.m. April 3, 2007]

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion is becoming a punching bag for critics and pundits, just like Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in opposition. 

OTTAWA  — As a federal election approaches, the leader of the opposition is ridiculed daily in the media and anonymous party insiders tell newspaper reporters they question whether he'll still be around in a few months after the anticipated whipping at the polls.    
In fact, they appear to be counting the days until the election is over so their party can pick another leader and get on with the job of winning elections.   

If you are thinking about Liberal Leader Stephane Dion you're half correct. 

The same type of writing-off was happening just weeks before the 2006 federal election that transformed Prime Minister Stephen Harper from a zero to a hero. 

The same media that now applauds the strategic brilliance of almost every Harper decision has quickly forgotten this was the same man who had made the strategic blunder of wearing an ill-fitting cowboy suit at the 2005 Calgary Stampede. 

In the summer and early fall of 2005, Harper, it seemed, couldn't do anything right in the media's eyes. 

Belinda Stronach's defection to the Liberals was viewed as a strategic blunder by Harper for not reaching out to an ambitious leadership rival. There was the loss of the non-confidence vote against the Liberals. Harper was too angry and aggressive, the critics said. 

Harper and the Tories were outwitted by the opposition parties who stopped debate on the same-sex marriage legislation while Tory MPs were on little green buses headed to the airport for the weekend. Harper? Not as crafty as those governing Liberals and too angry and aggressive about that fact of life.

Harper then had a short-lived, attempted image makeover that was quickly abandoned after reporters mocked an impromptu game of toss the football between Harper and Peter MacKay on the front lawn of Parliament Hill. The game was so impromptu that photographers were invited. 

There was the Calgary Stampede incident. A poorly attended photo-op at a Dairy Queen in Quebec where people were offered money to buy ice cream from the "scary" Mr. Harper. 

Watching Harper's certain demise had become so fashionable that by the end of the summer even minor questions about Harper's leadership were blown out of proportion as was the case when a Toronto Tory organizer started an online petition to have Harper ousted. 

"The time has come for Stephen Harper to stop dreaming that his destiny is 24 Sussex Drive," wrote Carol Jamieson. "That day will only come if one of its residents invites him over because they are looking for a stick-in-the-mud dinner guest."

The Harper-can't-win fad reached its peak on October 6, 2005, when Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin wrote the following, "Stephen Harper is now typecast, fairly or not, as the grim reaper of Canadian politics. But there is not enough will among the party's rank and file to drive him out. The party doesn't need that kind of bloodbath. The only hope for a change would be if the leader, for the good of the team, voluntarily resigned and called a leadership convention for January."

Almost four months to the day after Martin wrote those comments Harper was being sworn in as prime minister. Had he taken Martin's advice, who knows, Harper could be working for real at that Quebec Dairy Queen today asking customers if they would like "open federalism" with their sundaes. 

Although Stephane Dion is not Stephen Harper and Harper already had one election under his belt, there is an eerily similar vibe going around on Parliament Hill these days. 

The Conservatives, some Liberals and far too many reporters and pundits in the Parliamentary Press Gallery seem to be suffering from a common affliction known as Not Taking the Opposition Leader Seriously. 

To many Stephane Dion is not a leader. "It has to be true since I saw it on TV," they must think. 

On Tuesday, Sun Media's Greg Weston provide the latest example from the writing-off Dion bandwagon when he called him "the Grit leader who couldn't."

Weston went on to say Dion had a "fledgling leadership" and the Liberals were "staring at the political slaughterhouse."

But to be fair to Weston, the media isn't alone in this assessment and it isn't coming exclusively from Conservative spinmeisters. 

Privately, a number of Liberals offer a similar assessment, including some key Jean Chretien supporters who have written Dion off. 

Former Chretien supporters see too many Paul Martin backroomers working for Dion's election team and believe they will deliver for Dion Martin-esque electoral results. 

Of course, a lot of these Chretien people were the same folks who sat around and allowed "da boss" to be dethroned by his caucus and party apparatus.

The Chretien people should also remember that their guy was similarly written off by the media and people inside the party during his early struggles as opposition leader. 

One Liberal MP, who did not support Dion during the leadership race, recently noted the similarities between the early struggles of Chretien and Dion, such as questions about language skills and being considered a good cabinet minister but not up to the cut and thrust of being the opposition leader in question period. 

Of course this is not to say that Dion will get similar results. 

Weston and others could be right and Dion may very well lead the Liberals to that political slaughterhouse or, worse,  John Turner Land. 

But the recent example of Harper in the months before the 2006 election campaign shows that dire predictions about the electoral prospects of the opposition leader are not set in stone and should include a warning label that reads, "We've been wrong about this sort of thing before." 

: Related Links

> Liberals concerned Dion surrounded by 2006 election loss deniers

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