Kennedy's message is bold, but risky


MONTREAL - Any party leadership convention must strike a balance between conflicting objectives: to choose the messenger or the message; the candidate who reflects their ideals or the candidate who can win. The candidates, likewise, have a choice: whether to tell party members what they want to believe or what they need to hear. In their convention speeches, they must decide whether to craft a message that can win the party, or one that can win the country.

Kennedy's message is bold, but risky

MONTREAL - Any party leadership convention must strike a balance between conflicting objectives: to choose the messenger or the message; the candidate who reflects their ideals or the candidate who can win. The candidates, likewise, have a choice: whether to tell party members what they want to believe or what they need to hear. In their convention speeches, they must decide whether to craft a message that can win the party, or one that can win the country.

Eight candidates got up to speak last night, and of the eight, only one had a message that was truly aimed at winning the country -- or at any rate that reminded the party there was a country to win. It was Gerard Kennedy, of all the candidates, who seemed to remember that the Liberal party lost the last election -- not the voters. And it was Mr. Kennedy who appealed to the party to reach out to the voters it needs to reach if it is to be returned to power.

Whether that makes him the right messenger is a different question. But Mr. Kennedy's message was precisely on target. He made three points. One, that the party must tell Canadians that it has listened, it has learned, and it has changed. Two, that it must turn its attention to building support in the West, the future of Canada, where the people, the money and the power are shifting. And three, that the party must rediscover its heritage as the party of One Canada. In perhaps his most pointed passage, he told delegates: "The word spoken on Quebec doorsteps last winter wasn't 'nation.' It was integrity."

It was a brave speech, but Mr. Kennedy can afford to be brave -- or rather he must. He does not have the numbers for a more conventional appeal. He needed to redefine the debate, to place the other candidates to one side and himself on the other. I doubt it will win him the leadership even then -- it can't have pleased some delegates to be spoken to in such blunt terms -- but it is a message the other candidates cannot afford to ignore.

Stephane Dion had a different challenge. He is better placed to win, if the chips fall his way, and perhaps could afford to be more cautious. Doubtless he calculated it was enough to cover off some of his perceived weak points: to show that he could be effective on the attack, that he could muster passion, humour and eloquence alongside his trademark logic, and above all to do all of these in understandable English. And on all of these scores he did passably well.

But however well delivered, it was an oddly flat speech, appealing far more to delegates' complacency than their ambitions, overly burdened with policy detail. And, disastrously, it ran too long for the allotted time -- a key passage appealing to his fellow Quebecers, in Trudeauesque language, to remember that "Canada belongs to all of us, in its entirety," intended to emphasize his national unity credentials against Mr. Kennedy, was never delivered.

In the showdown for third place, then -- the two candidates with the most to win or lose from their speeches -- Mr. Kennedy got the better of the night. What of the two front-runners?

Bob Rae's performance was extraordinary, and may well have won him the prize he seeks. A remarkable decision to speak off the cuff -- apparently -- showed off to effect both his skills as a communicator and the self-confidence that comes with long political experience. It was funny, gracious, folksy and heartfelt, in an old-fashioned political sense. It didn't mean a whole lot -- it never does -- but if the issue is the messenger, not the message, Liberals have a clear choice.

Last came Michael Ignatieff. If Mr. Dion's speech was overstuffed, Mr. Ignatieff's was almost entirely, indeed ludicrously, content-free. ("Let us choose unity over division" gives you the flavour.) I suppose that was the percentage play -- he is the front-runner, after all -- but given the abundant negatives he has amassed, you'd think he would have made more of an overt attempt to attract second-ballot voters from other camps. Well, he did once: I was pleased to hear Mr. Ignatieff speak of the "Liberal vision of one Canada." I would be more pleased had he not spent the rest of the campaign outlining precisely the opposite vision.

A quick survey of the final four, Ken Dryden's speech was easily the most offputting: almost offensive in its arrogance. Mr. Dryden's chief complaint with the Conservatives is that they are not Liberals, and as such -- as he more or less said in so many words -- not Canadians. I can't say I was disappointed when he, too, ran out of time.

Scott Brison decided to give over almost the whole of his speech to the topic of the environment. It was a defensible choice, both on its merits and as the political topic du jour -- but it is not an issue with which he has previously been identified. A signal, perhaps, of his support for Mr. Dion?

Joe Volpe was supposed, according to rumour, to use his speech to endorse Bob Rae. Never happened, though he teased us right up to the end. Twenty minutes of my life I'll never get back. (As if to add insult to injury, Mr. Volpe did cross to Mr. Rae after the speeches were all over.)

And Martha Hall Findlay? That wasn't the last speech of this campaign Ms. Hall Findlay gave -- it was the first speech of the next. Not for nothing was her theme song "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." With her unheralded campaign, Ms. Hall Findlay has vaulted to the front ranks of Liberal women -- and as such, an instant contender for leader next time around.

It comes down to what sort of challenge the party believes itself to be facing. Is it a matter of winning the next election, or the second and third and fourth after that? Do they need only show up at the polls to accept the blessings of a contrite Canadian people, or do they have work to do? On this will their choice depend.



HIGH POINT She's said it before and she said it again: "I'll be damned if in the 21st century, the Liberal party does not have a woman on this stage."

LOW POINT It was probably the last time she'll see a podium for a while, but spending the first few minutes thanking your mom is more Academy Awards than politics.

BEST QUOTE "We're all extremely proud of being Canadian. It's time once again to be proud of being Liberals."

OVERALL RATING She started slow, but hit her stride and delivered some nice lines against Stephen Harper and for a united Liberal party. Two Ls out of five.


HIGH POINT Sadly, the lame opening joke about his mom was about as good as it would get. He started strong, evoking the Charter of Rights, but soon got sidetracked.

LOW POINT In the middle of his speech, Mr. Brison threw to a video about environmental issues. Al Gore he's not. He might as well have played An Inconvenient Truth.

BEST QUOTE He didn't really go anywhere with it, but it had a certain ring: "Legacy is the child of purpose."

OVERALL RATING If he'd been speaking at a Sierra Club convention, he didn't do badly. But I'm pretty sure this was about the leadership of a political party. One L out of five.


HIGH POINT When he banged the podium and hollered "Long live Canada" at the end of his speech, waking everyone back up.

LOW POINT Referring to himself in the third person in a story that culminated with a supporter encouraging him to be a "battering ram for all of us."

BEST QUOTE Defending foreign affairs "based on the politics of peace."

OVERALL RATING Considering how his campaign has gone, it could have been much, much worse. But a leadership speech should never be a career retrospective. Half an L out of five.


HIGH POINT Toward the end of his address, Mr. Dryden showed uncharacteristic passion, telling delegates the Conservatives are not "worthy of this Canada."

LOW POINT The microphone was shut off when he went too long, but he kept talking. And the thing is, it didn't really affect his delivery.

BEST QUOTE Take your pick from these doozies. "People who don't like people. That is not us." "This campaign has been a grind. What an awful -- what a perfect experience."

OVERALL RATING The man won six Stanley Cups in eight seasons. People will cheer him regardless of what he's talking about. Two Ls out of five.


HIGH POINT Promoting his three-pillar platform. "It will not be enough to be a government in waiting. We must offer our own ideas."

LOW POINT Mr. Dion, like Mr. Dryden, surpassed his allotted time and had his microphone cut off.

BEST QUOTE "There's more culture in a bowl of yogourt than this Conservative government. We have a Prime Minister who thinks that childcare is delivered through the mailbox."

OVERALL RATING Some nice lines and rhetorical flourishes, Mr. Dion got the crowd riled up and was the first who could talk about being PM with a straight face. Three Ls out of five.


HIGH POINT Acknowledging that Stephen Harper "will not defeat himself" with Canadian voters. "Integrity. Hard work. That's how we'll win back their faith."

LOW POINT When the guy introducing a candidate is a better speaker than half the competition. Justin Trudeau shows the pretenders how to connect with an audience.

BEST QUOTE "Tune out the backroom noise and ask yourself, 'Why are you a Liberal?' When we are at our best, we will always beat their best."

OVERALL RATING Used personal anecdotes to paint a convincing picture of his motivations and his priorities. Four Ls out of five.


HIGH POINT Introductory montage had rapid-fire raft of high-profile endorsements.

LOW POINT Mr. Rae had the podium removed and delivered his speech roaming the stage. Personal, maybe, but it looked like he was going to break into song.

BEST QUOTES "When the government was defeated in January, I had a job." "If the party thinks it's all about the party, and not about the country, then we will disappoint."

OVERALL RATING Good decision to bring up his qualifications outside of government, evoking Red Cross and Air-India. Bad decision to go impromptu, occasionally bordering on rambling. Three Ls out of five.


HIGH POINT The video montage was more than 10 minutes long.

LOW POINT Even though he only had about 10 minutes to fill, Mr. Ignatieff spoke with the cadence of a slightly annoyed first-year history prof.

BEST QUOTE "We have long been a beacon to the world." Is it just me, or did everyone say that? I think Scott Feschuk and Scott Reid may have sold the same speech to every candidate.

OVERALL RATING He may have been scared to say anything controversial. He definitely opted to play it safe. But did he have to repeat every cliche twice? Two Ls out of five.


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