Dion draws carbon plan inspiration from Australia
OTTAWA - Australia seems to have become something of a role model for Canadian politicians.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper drew inspiration from Oz to craft a winning election campaign in 2006.
And now Liberal Leader Stephane Dion is looking Down Under for the key to defeating Harper's Conservatives.
Indeed, Dion acknowledges his risky decision to make a carbon tax the cornerstone of the upcoming Liberal platform was influenced, at least in part, by the example of Kevin Rudd. The Labour leader won last November's election in Australia, promising bold action on climate change.
"The Labour party has been elected with a courageous platform of climate change," Dion said in a recent interview. "It can be done."
Shortly after Dion assumed the leadership in December 2006, a handful of his top strategists -- Andrew Bevan, Katie Telford and Jamie Broadhurst -- began keeping a close eye on political developments in Australia. They knew that Harper had drawn inspiration from John Howard, then Australia's prime minister, and they decided they needed to know more about him.
"The similarities between Howard and Harper are striking but most importantly, of course, the Conservatives kept making a big deal out of the fact that they were disciples of Howard and were learning from them really what right-wing tactics work electorally," said one Liberal insider.
"So, we thought we better figure out the other side of that."
Harper's team had studied Howard's four-term success and made no secret of the fact that they'd imported some Aussie tactics for the Conservatives' 2006 campaign in Canada. Howard's federal party director, Brian Loughnane, even became an informal adviser to the Tory campaign.
Like Howard, Harper jettisoned some of his party's right-wing baggage and appealed to mainstream, middle-class voters with a platform of targeted tax cuts, doled out daily, plank by plank.
But as Dion's strategists began analyzing from afar what made Howard -- and, by extension, his ideological soul mate, Harper -- tick, they discovered plenty of similarities between their own leader and Rudd, who was, coincidentally, elected opposition leader the same weekend as Dion.
Both men were seen to be humourless, charisma-challenged, policy wonks. Or, as the Liberal insider puts it more charitably: "Both are students of policy, both had a reputation for honesty, integrity, intelligence."
Moreover, like Dion, Rudd was a champion of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Dion's strategists watched with fascination as Rudd promised to ratify Kyoto, something Howard had resolutely refused to do, and promised to slash emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. And they were thrilled when Rudd's high-minded message of environmental responsibility and the need to show world leadership ultimately triumphed over Howard's predictions of economic Armageddon and pocketbook appeals to Australians' self-interest.
The lesson for Dion was clear.
"The point is that it's worth being courageous about these things as a politician because it can pay off politically and Rudd is certainly the proof of that -- especially when the other side is non-substantive and fear mongering," says the insider. "You can actually have a hopeful message that resonates."
Liberals characterize last fall's Australian election as a match-up between a "sincere policy wonk and a ruthless ideologue," and they're attempting to recreate that dynamic for the next election in Canada, which could come as early as this autumn.
To Liberals' private delight, Harper appears eager to continue playing the Howard role, trying to puncture Dion's green-shift plan with dire predictions that the Liberal leader will "screw everyone" with his "tax on everything."
While the Tories have deployed an animated grease spot to convey their crude attacks, Dion has determinedly stuck to the Rudd-style high road. Indeed, Dion even quoted Rudd approvingly when he launched the green-shift plan.
He compared Harper's "pattern of never-ending attacks" with Rudd's admonition that "climate change should not be another political football. We must avoid the temptations of short-term politics and the usual scare campaigns. Climate change requires serious debate and a serious resolve to act before the cost to those who follow us becomes too great."
Still, Dion said his interest in Australia's climate-change conversion is not motivated simply by a desire to copy Rudd's electoral success. Rather, he said he's monitoring the efforts by many other countries to tackle global warming, trying to ensure that Canada does its share environmentally and doesn't get left behind economically.
When former prime minister Jean Chretien asked him to leave academe to become his intergovernmental affairs minister in 1995, Dion said his first inclination was to refuse. But after attending an international conference on federalism, he decided to take the job because he believed Canada could be a role model to the world.
The same applies to the fight against climate change, he said, with Canada positioned as one of the few countries that could champion the green technologies that will power the economy of the 21st century.
"The sense to be a citizen of the planet has always been, in my case, a strong motivation," Dion said. "Yes, I'm a proud Quebecer, a proud Canadian, but I'm a human being above all.
"It's important for me to realize that if Canada fails to be a leader (on climate change), we'll fail the world. If Canada is a leader, we'll make a difference for the world."