Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advocate for Environment to Head Canada's Liberals

Not a bad development...

Advocate for Environment to Head Canada's Liberals

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 3, 2006; A21

MONTREAL, Dec. 2 -- In a convention that underscored the rising political weight of climate change issues, Canada's Liberal Party on Saturday chose St?phane Dion, a former environment minister, to lead the party and try to wrest power from the ruling Conservatives in the next national election.

Dion, 51, was elected head of the party over seven other candidates, including Michael Ignatieff, a renowned Harvard professor who returned to Canada last year and had quickly become a front-runner in the race to head the opposition against Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Ignatieff's drive for the post stumbled in the fourth and last ballot over his opinions on Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. The fragmented delegations at the convention turned to Dion, whose environmental credentials overcame his thickly accented English and lackluster convention speech.

In his acceptance speech, Dion repeatedly emphasized his main goal: dealing with what he called "the greatest challenge we have today, sustainable development."

He was elected, he said, because "Canadians have a deep concern about the main issue of our time -- building a sustainable environment for our children."

It was a message the delegates embraced.

"We've recognized that global warming and Kyoto are agenda items we have to deal with. Canada has gotten the message," said a delegate on the convention floor, Paul Mulligan, 60, a retired cartographer.

Dion must regroup the Liberals, long the dominant party in Canada, to try to reverse the loss in January to Harper's Conservatives. The party hopes that disillusionment with Harper for cutting social programs, rising despair over Canadian military losses in Afghanistan and opposition to Harper's retreat from the Kyoto environmental accord will topple the Conservative minority government.

As visual evidence of the importance of environmental issues, the sea of green T-shirts worn by Dion's supporters grew as the balloting continued in Montreal's cavernous Palace of Congress. Each of the candidates had pledged to make aggressive strides on the environment, but Dion's long work to strengthen the Kyoto accord carried those who put the issue at the top of the agenda.

An academic and native of Quebec City, Dion entered Parliament a decade ago and has held a variety of cabinet posts under Liberal governments. But in his last post, as environment minister, he won credit for devoting enormous effort to extending the provisions of the Kyoto accord. He owns a husky named Kyoto.

But he is less well-liked in his home province of Quebec because of his opposition to the popular movement to make the French-speaking province an independent country. In the late 1990s, Dion carried on a long-running debate with supporters of separatism and eventually assisted in drafting a law that many Quebecers feel helps block their movement.

"Quebec people don't like St?phane Dion," said Jean Pierre Laine, 54, an alternate delegate from Montreal. "He is a federalist." Quebec newspaper cartoons at the time portrayed him as a rat; he was pilloried as a traitor to his province.

"It will be an uphill struggle for Dion in Quebec," agreed Charles Hubbard, a member of Parliament from New Brunswick, in the convention hall. "The people who question federalism see Dion as the arch devil."

That is a burden for the Liberal Party, which had hoped to strengthen its position in the province. Dion's speaking style, often wooden and stilted, also is seen as a detriment in any matchup with Harper, who is smooth and fluent in both English and French.

Dion "is a bit rigid," said David Carter, 58, a delegate from Medicine Hat, Alberta. But he is "highly principled. He's strong, intelligent and very committed to the country."

In Canada's Parliament and other public appearances, top officials are expected to switch between both official languages with ease. Dion's syntax is sometimes difficult to sort out in English.

"It's important to be bilingual. I think it's horrible to say, but his language skills are not good enough," said Lana Stermac, a party observer from Toronto.

Others disagreed.

"It didn't hurt Chr?tien," said delegate Garry Johnson, noting that former prime minister Jean Chr?tien, also a Quebec native, served for 10 years and spoke heavily accented English.

"If they keep sending our boys back in body bags from Afghanistan, that is what will do Harper in," he added.

The Afghanistan issue is a tricky one for Liberals, however. A Liberal Paul Martin government committed Canadian troops to Afghanistan. Harper expanded the mission and engineered a Parliament vote in May to keep the troops there until at least 2009. Many Liberal Parliament members voted for the extension.

Harper, described at the convention as a Canadian version of President Bush, has focused on a narrow agenda of conservative social and fiscal goals, and has cut programs that fall outside of that list. As head of a minority government, he has said he will call an election to try to win a majority. Political experts predict that an election called by Harper or forced by the opposition will come next year, possibly early in the year.

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