So similar to Australia in so many ways, Canada is also intriguingly different in its politics. This week the similarities were more on show, as, like ours, Canada’s opposition elected a new leader: 51-year-old former academic Stephane Dion.

The Canadian Liberal Party elects its leaders by a national convention, not just a vote of MPs. Dion was a surprise choice, beating front-runners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.

Although it’s less than a year since the last election, Canadians will probably be going back to the polls sometime in 2007. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper lacks a majority in parliament, surviving only through the goodwill of the separatist Quebec Bloc.

If the next election is not to be as indecisive as the last, the Liberals need a leader who can cut through and make significant gains, especially in Quebec. Hence the rise of Dion, the only Quebecker among the leadership contenders.

He also benefited from the party’s apparent tendency to alternate between English- and French-speaking leaders, although there is concern that his relatively poor English may prove a handicap.

Dion’s big issue is environmentalism, and his victory is being hailed as “a major shift to the Green side of the spectrum”. The Liberals can now be expected to take a stronger line on climate change, attacking Harper’s government for its lukewarm support for the Kyoto treaty — Dion actually has a dog called “Kyoto”.

An opinion poll following Dion’s election showed a sharp jump in Liberal support, to 37%: 7% ahead of January’s election result and 6% clear of the Conservatives. But the swing came basically from Ontario, where the Liberals are already dominant. To return the Liberals to government, Dion will have to make bigger inroads in Quebec and the west.

Peter Fray

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