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The first Liberal step: Replace Dion

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Now that the Governor-General has accepted Stephen Harper's request for a prorogation of Parliament until Jan. 26, there is time for everyone to take a breath and think through what just happened and what happens next. As a Liberal, I believe the first step for my party is to replace Stéphane Dion as leader with someone whose first job is to rebuild the Liberal Party, rather than leading a coalition with the NDP.

The world is in the midst of a financial crisis and an economic downturn that have been continually surprising observers since the first signs of difficulty began to emerge in the spring of 2007. Unlike previous slowdowns, this one is accompanied by a seizure of credit markets, a meltdown in the stock markets, falling real-estate values, challenged pension funds and a contagion that is infecting financial institutions big and small the world over. So far, Canada has mostly avoided direct hits, but we are right next to the battlefield and shrapnel is flying everywhere. We cannot assume we will somehow be spared.

Canadians have every right to expect that the politicians they elected so recently would be entirely focused on the issues threatening our economic security and well-being. Instead, they have been subjected to a sordid display of arrogance, hyperbole and incompetence that can only make voters wish a pox on all their houses.

This is too serious a time for games. Our political class was given its marching orders on election night in terms that everyone seemed to understand. The Conservatives were given the privilege of continuing in government but on condition they seek the support of members of other parties. The voters chose not to give them a majority, and the strong mandate that goes with it. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois were given the privilege of representing their electors by holding the government to account in Parliament and working to improve legislation that is proposed.

Last week's fiscal update showed the Conservatives had not been listening on election night. Oh, there had been promises that they would engage Parliament in a more constructive and less partisan way, and the Prime Minister looked statesmanlike at the G20 summit in Washington. But in the fiscal update, they abandoned all pretext of multi-partisanship and co-operation and struck at their opponents, leaving them no choice but to vote them down.

Whether this was stupidity, arrogance or an intentional tactic, I cannot say. But to have created a totally avoidable political crisis when the economy was the task at hand was highly irresponsible. This has only become worse in the past week as a government desperate to hold on to power showed itself willing to be reckless on the national unity file. That is one sleeping dog that should be left alone.

The Liberal Party, with its worst result in percentage of vote in its long and proud history, was also given a message on election night. Namely, that since losing power, the party, its leader and its caucus had failed to regain the confidence of the people. In fact, that confidence had further eroded since January of 2006.

The notion that the public would accept Stéphane Dion as prime minister, after having resoundingly rejected that possibility a few weeks earlier, was delusional at best. Mr. Dion had seemed to accept responsibility for the defeat (although somewhat reluctantly), and should have left his post immediately.

Confronted by a political crisis that was not of his making, Mr. Dion became an obstacle to his party, and to the opposition, in dealing with it. His weakness probably fuelled the Conservative hubris that led to this fiasco in the first place. Furthermore, in agreeing to the terms of the coalition with the NDP and the Bloc, Mr. Dion bound his successor to a controversial arrangement without even consulting any of the candidates to succeed him in the process, leaving them no option but to endorse it or break with him as party leader.

The government must be prevented from running roughshod over the opposition at all times, but especially when the voters have denied them a majority. The best way to do that is for the Liberal executive and caucus to choose a new leader immediately, one who can take charge before Christmas and get the caucus ready for the resumption of Parliament.

Money that would otherwise be spent on a rerun of the last leadership campaign should, instead, be raised for the party's coffers. The new leader should quickly move to modernize the party structure and to prepare an election program, just in case it is needed. But the first task should be to work collaboratively with all other parties to restore the confidence of Canadians in their Parliament.

The government needs to drop the ugly rhetoric that it reverted to so quickly and easily so soon after the election. It's not just about winning confidence votes. The confidence of the House of Commons needs to be earned on a daily basis, by being consultative, trustworthy and respectful. Unfortunately, Mr. Harper has put quite a dollop of poison into the well.

In my experience, most MPs come to Parliament motivated to do the best they can for their constituents. Perhaps on Jan. 26, all 308 of them will return with a new desire to fulfill that ambition.

John Manley is former deputy prime minister and minister of finance. He is now counsel at McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

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