Skip to main content

Almost a week after his party received its biggest electoral drubbing since Confederation, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion today said his tenure will end at a leadership convention in May but vowed to steer his party through the opening of the 40th Parliament next month.

"I fully accept my share of the responsibility," Mr. Dion said of the Liberal electoral failure. "We must learn quickly from this experience and move on. The search for a new Liberal leader will be part of a process of renewing our party, but clearly will not in itself be sufficient."

When asked if he felt bitter about the election, and now his decision to hand over the party reins, Mr. Dion said no.

"The past is the past," he said. "I wish I had succeeded, of course. But you need to accept in democracy the result and move on. That's what I'm doing."

Mr. Dion wasn't the only person hoping to quickly move past the disappointing federal election. Former Liberal leadership rival Bob Rae shied away from leadership speculation on Monday, instead calling on the party to renew itself, engage with the public and "not beat up on ourselves."

"There'll be lots of time to reflect on the last election. It's a simple reality that sometimes you win elections, sometimes you lose them," Mr. Rae told CTV. "We'll be sifting through those tea leaves for some time to come."

Mr. Rae said he has not decided yet if he will contest the party's next leadership convention. "Obviously I will be discussing it with people. It would be a little disingenuous to say I wouldn't do that, but I won't be making a decision for a few weeks," he said.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil was quick to praise Mr. Dion's decision to stay at the helm until a leadership convention is held.

Mr. McNeil said he feared that an immediate resignation by Mr. Dion would have allowed the party to move on without assessing the disconnect at the ballot box, adding the election loss was not due solely to Mr. Dion.

Mr. Dion's decision to bridge the gap is a "testament to the character of the man," he said.

Back in 1993, when Jean Chrétien's low personal approval ratings threatened to undo his bid for prime minister, Mr. Dion was a young college professor who saw that weakness as a secret weapon that could win Chrétien the crown.

"The best card he (Chrétien) has at the moment is that he is so low in public esteem, there are so few expectations, that he can surprise people," Mr. Dion said of Mr. Chrétien. "His image is poor, he seems old, confused, a Trudeau without Trudeau's genius."

Any hopes Mr. Dion may have harboured that his words would come back to reflect his own leadership ambitions 15 years later are now dashed.

Mr. Dion will instead go down in history as only the second Liberal leader in Canadian history who did not become prime minister, joining Edward Blake, who held the party's top job from 1880-87.

It was Mr. Chrétien who appointed Mr. Dion to Cabinet in 1996 and had him run in the Saint-Laurent-Cartierville by-election two months later.

That launched a political career that saw Mr. Dion go from party foot soldier against Quebec's separation to the unexpected winner of the 2006 Liberal leadership convention.

Mr. Dion said Monday that he had spent the last few days in reflection, thinking about party, country and his own future. Ultimately, he has decided to remain as leader until May "in order to ensure a smooth and successful transition." He will then step away from the party leadership, and stay on as MP for Saint-Laurent-Cartierville.

"Politics has its ups and downs. I'm happy to be able to say I've enjoyed many more ups than downs," Mr. Dion told a news conference Monday.

He apologized to candidates who lost their seats under his leadership, and encouraged new MPs to make sure the government works in the best interests of all Canadians.

And he urged his party to look deeply into its own machinations and existence.

"We must look beyond leadership to understand what went wrong in the campaign. ... and begin to fix our problems so that we can, I hope and I am confident, form a Liberal government again for all Canadians," Mr. Dion said.

While almost two-thirds of Canadians voted for a party other than the Conservatives, Mr. Dion said his party's popular vote declined for the third election in a row. "This is a trend that must be reversed, because we must win the next election," he said.

But without an overhaul of the party's finances and fundraising machinery, he said the party would have no potential to counter campaigns like the one run by the Conservatives, which relied heavily on attack advertising targeting Mr. Dion and his Green Shift plan.

He spoke passionately about the Tories' attack advertising that was such a hallmark of the campaign, and said he would do all he could to stop any future Liberal leaders from being vulnerable to such attacks.

"We have to bring our fundraising machinery into the 21st Century, or the Liberal party will be at a permanent political disadvantage. This work must start now, and be successful in the coming months," Mr. Dion said.

Mr. Dion has been in seclusion at Stornoway, his official residence in Ottawa, since the Oct. 14 election saw the party record its lowest popular vote since Confederation.

Speculation about his future has been rife since election night, when Mr. Dion conceded defeat but did not address the massive 19-seat loss the party had suffered.

He didn't shy away from the topic on Monday, saying the party lost because he did not get the Liberal message out.

"If people are asking why, it's because I failed," Mr. Dion said.

When canvassing their ridings, Liberal candidates were told again and again that voters would not vote Liberal because they did not like the party leader. The voters, instead, were listening to Conservative advertising, Mr. Dion said.

"At the end of the day, people thought it was a carbon tax and were afraid of it," he said of the Green Shift plan that formed a central plank of his election campaign.

"When I came with a [economic]plan for the first 30 days of the Liberal government... now Mr. Harper is implementing something very similar, after saying in the campaign I was cheering for a recession."

Many Liberals expected Mr. Dion to stand aside within days of the election, but others argued he should stay on to help carry the party through to a leadership convention likely to be held in May.

The Liberals were reduced to 76 seats last Tuesday, down from 103 in the 2006 election, and won only 26.2 per cent of the popular vote - two points lower than the disastrous showing in 1984 under John Turner and only four points ahead of the worst ever result in 1867.

- With files from Canadian Press