If Capo di tutti Capi Roberts demands answers, who am I to refuse the call?

Below the fold, my thoughts on the choice of Stephane Dion for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The short version: modest optimism.

(Note: I am not a member of the Liberal Party, but I have voted for them occasionally.)

To understand the dynamics of this leadership race, you need to understand a few things about the Liberal Party’s place in Canadian politics. The Liberal Party has been the semi-permanent Party of Government in Canada, having run the country for the bulk of the 20th century. Liberals — sometimes arrogantly, if not undeservedly — see periods when they are out of power as deviations from the norm.

The lingering problem for the Liberal Party — which contributed indirectly to its recent electoral defeat — has been a deep division between two factions, respectively loyal to the two previous Liberal Prime Ministers, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. Declaring my biases: While I’m not a Liberal voter by nature, I was a much bigger fan of Chretien than Martin.

For the past decade or so (until this January), the Liberals were running the country more-or-less competently when it came to fiscal matters, but basically letting a lot of things keep going on cruise control without any government control, most obviously environmental issues. Under the Liberals, carbon emissions have grown way beyond any level we can bring in line with Canada’s Kyoto obligations. The Conservatives now in government, while blaming the Liberals for this situation, have given up even the pretense of complying with Kyoto.

Enter Stephane Dion. As the Minister of the Environment for two years, he did not have a lot of things to chalk up as successes. The reality of Canadian politics, however, is that the Prime Minister has an incredible amount of control over his cabinet and over the Parliament — much stronger than even Bush’s hold on the GOP Congress. We can’t really say whether Dion’s brief record as a middleweight Environment Minister gives any indication of his future success. He was serving two Prime Ministers who did not prioritize the environment. He has made the environment one of his “three pillars," and if the Liberals win he would be the first explicitly green Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Two other things need to be said, one about Stephane Dion, the other about the Liberal Party in general.

I said we don’t have a lot of evidence from Dion’s tenure as Environment Minister to go on. That’s because the bulk of his time in the government of Canada was as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, also called the “Unity Minister.” In this position, he took on the separatists in Quebec (a perennial Canadian issue) with great passion and effect; he is credited with having defused much of the separatist passion during the 1990s. (I have written elsewhere that Dion was the man nobody expected to win, but the man who most deserves the job.) Intergovernmental affairs is one of the least popular but most important portfolios in the Canadian political scene, and Dion won grudging respect even from some separatists for his skill and intelligence. Now the man with that skill and intelligence has made saving the environment the campaign issue with which he will fight the next election. I call that a major plus.

The Liberal Party of Canada, however, is not in a great fighting shape at the moment. Heavily in debt, with a poor fundraising apparatus, and still viewed with suspicion by many Canadians after 13 years of incumbency, Dion has a much, much more difficult road ahead of him than many Liberals acknowledge. If the Liberals run on the environment and lose — whether fairly or not — the conventional wisdom could become “running green means losing.” The environment more or less ceased being an issue in Canada in the 1980s or so, and a big loss now under a green banner would risk putting The Cause on the back burner for another decade or more.

Nevertheless, as an environmentalist I am, as I say, modestly optimistic. Dion has made a career out of defying expectations, and the Liberal Party has a strong group of leaders that I suspect will mount a more effective campaign than some realize. And even though the Liberals are not the party I am naturally inclined to vote for, it’s a good day when any party brings the environment front and center. The movement will only arrive when the environment is no longer a partisan issue, after all.