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Toronto Star: How "foreign interests" shaped Canada's Liberal Party Convention

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  • Tarek Fatah
    A significant number of delegates went to Montreal as more than Liberals, or even Canadians — they went as pressure points for ethnic and foreign
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 9, 2006
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      "A significant number of delegates went to Montreal as more than Liberals, or even Canadians — they went as pressure points for ethnic and foreign interests."
      - Jim Travers, The Toronto Star
      Dec. 9, 2006. 01:00 AM

      Delegates as agents for ethnic interests
      More than a new leader
      at stake for some Liberals
      By James Travers
      Just seven days after choosing a new leader, Liberals have a problem that isn't Stéphane Dion. His first-week reviews, while not entirely flattering, glow in contrast to retrospectives on the peculiar process that made him an upset winner.
      It's clear now that unusual forces shaped a convention that contradicts conventional wisdom. Nothing from Friday night's speeches to Saturday's manoeuvres follows patterns that for decades made leadership choices somewhat predictable.
      What didn't happen is what now makes Montreal so intriguing. A too-close-to-call contest wasn't won or lost in the campaign's last public performance, and the final decision wasn't primarily about winning the coming election.
      Did the media miss some portentous tea leaves? Absolutely.
      But so did the political pros. Backroom thinkers for both front-runners confirmed in interviews this week that many of their seminal assumptions were simply wrong.
      Based on polling and intuition, Bob Rae strategists believed his potential to beat Stephen Harper, his speechmaking and delegate fragmentation would put the former Ontario premier on the last ballot. Instead, the convention's top priority wasn't the coming election, the most troubled speaker is now leader, and voter blocs made the difference between winning and losing.
      Miscalculations by the Michael Ignatieff camp include faith that the party would forgive his Israeli war crime comments, that the Liberal establishment would protect its interests, and that enough delegates abandoning failing candidates would flock to the favourite.
      Instead, Ignatieff was punished, even critically wounded, on a first ballot that wasn't just pro forma, the party's palace guard didn't respond to Gerard Kennedy's early move to Dion, and delegates driven by their own agendas migrated en masse.
      Underlying all this is another twist that would be darkly humorous if it weren't heavy with serious implications: A convention once destined to be decided by the Québécois-as-a-nation debate was skewed by the evolving political realities of a country of multiple nations.
      A significant number of delegates went to Montreal as more than Liberals, or even Canadians — they went as pressure points for ethnic and foreign interests.
      Groups with ties to Sri Lanka's complex conflict are being singled out for their aggressive tactics. Ignatieff organizers say one Montreal faction put the price of its support on a future Liberal government establishing a consulate in the area fighting for independence. And Rae supporter Tarek Fatah this week exposed detailed discussions with Tamils allegedly offering to trade votes for a promise to delist Tiger guerrillas as terrorists.
      Both campaigns say they rejected those and other ethnic overtures, claims strengthened by their conspicuous failure to win late-ballot converts. And there's no evidence yet that anyone agreed to anything contrary to Canadian hegemony.
      But even if tainted by sour grapes, reports of such blatant bargaining are troubling. If nothing else, they suggest a fresh layer of partisan grubbiness.
      True, block voting is not a new phenomenon. It's both an established fact in party nomination fights for heavily ethnic urban ridings and an unseemly consideration in national immigration policies.
      What's also true is that citizen engagement is a democratic cornerstone. Active involvement is a positive, not a negative.
      Still, the political process makes its own assumptions. Among them are these: Voting is an act of individual conscience; ballots are more than raw capital to be accumulated for barter; and everyone shares an overarching interest in the outcome, no matter how different their opinions.
      All of last weekend's deviations from those norms are worrying, particularly the absence of a common purpose. Shocked by their own conclusions, some organizers now say a number of delegates were united only by their interest and were peering at the political process through a different prism.
      Delegates arriving in Montreal with fixed agendas were more interested in finding a sympathetic champion than a leader or winner. Why? Because they are willing to gamble — and it's a safe bet — that sooner or later whoever leads the party will become prime minister.
      Framed in that context, the convention decision changes. It becomes less about candidate qualities and more about their responses to specific demands.
      Another convention decision makes that dynamic more ominous. After considerable debate, Liberals voted to save delegated conventions from the scrap heap.
      Once again, that's not quite what it seems. In opting for drama over less-theatrical, one-member, one-vote contests, Liberals rescued the process more easily manipulated.
      That looks more dangerous today than a week ago.
      A convention showcasing a healthy coalition of green and young delegates, a convention that bucked much of the establishment to choose a decidedly different leader, is now attracting less complimentary attention.
      Moving forward, Stéphane Dion still has ample opportunity to prove the choice was wise. But Liberals looking back a week have reason to worry about the future.

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