If the Liberals thing replacing Dion will solve all of their problems, they're delusional. Or stupid. Or both.
For most of the parties on election night, there was some good news. The Conservatives and NDP both have larger caucuses, the BQ was revived againm and the Greens increased in votes and dollars from the annual state subsidy. For the Liberals, however, you had to look hard for good news. The party earned its lowest share of the popular vote in its history, had one of its lowest seat totals ever, and was down in almost every region of Canada. The bright spots? Well, Quebec was bit kinder to the Liberals than most people expected. Also, despite a pretty ineffective campaign, the party still has a significant degree of support. The Liberals may have reached bottom and the only way to go is up.
In the post-election post-mortem of the Liberals' mangled corpse, the media and many Liberals seem to be focusing all of their attention on Stephane Dion. I heard Jim Karygiannis' interview on CBC's the Current on Friday and all he could talk about was Stephane Dion's many failings. I've heard rumblings from Liberal insiders that they think that they can replace Dion, elect a new leader, bring down Harper in a year and get a majority. All of the media speculation is on Dion and how he didn't listen to advice, didn't communicate well and failed the party.
If only it were that simple. The problems with the Liberals run far deeper than leadership. This is a party that has neglected its party structures. The membership is disengaged and demoralized. The party is in a terrible financial position and the situation is only going to get worse; the drop in the popular vote means that its annual subsidy is now $1.6 million a year less. On policy, the Liberals have coasted for a couple of decades. A lot of attention has been paid to how disastrous the Green Shift was, but it was the first new and bold policy initative the party has brought forward in a generation (and maybe even two generations). The Liberals are like a rusted out car with no engine or tires. Those who think a change of leadership will fix everything are basically saying that by slapping a new coat of paint on this mess, Canadians can be convinced to buy it.
This is not to excuse Dion for his part in the disaster on Tuesday night. He wasn't an effective communicator, the campaign his team ran was poorly organized and executed, and according to reports, he didn't take advice well or manage his caucus well. If the Liberals do manage to fix the car, it will need a new coat of paint. The frustration I have with the media and with some of the Liberals I'm hearing from is that they're looking for the quick fix. It sounds like some are not prepared to do the hard work of fixing what's wrong with the party. This is why I argued that a Conservative majority would be good for the Liberals. It would have given them the time to fix things and may have woken them up to the fact that things are actually worse than they seem.
One last point about the "Replace Dion and all will be well" camp. I think they're forgetting why Dion became leader in the first place. The way the 2006 leadership convention is sometimes portrayed, you'd think the delegates were all intoxicated and in a drunken stupor chose Dion as leader. There was a reason Dion won. There were big questions over both Michael Ingnatieff's and Bob Rae's abilities to lead the party, renew it and position it for the future. The delegates chose Dion because those other options didn't seem palatable. I'll leave it for those with better knowledge of the Liberals and those two men to say whether they've improved and/or allayed those fears. The quick move to replace Dion means it likely comes down to Rae vs. Ignatieff again and the party will face the same problem once more.
Stephane Dion is a decent, hard-working, honest and sincere man, whose commitment to Canada cannot be questioned. As this election showed, that isn't enough to lead a party. He probably does have to go. But the Liberals had better realize that leadership may be the least of the problems facing the party. Without a commitment to party renewal, a new leader may just be leading them in circles in the political wilderness.