CANADA

THE RACE BEGINS

BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN AS LIBERAL LEADERSHIP HOPEFULS TRY TO IMPRESS A DIVIDED PARTY

BRUCE WALLACE January 29 1990
CANADA

THE RACE BEGINS

BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN AS LIBERAL LEADERSHIP HOPEFULS TRY TO IMPRESS A DIVIDED PARTY

BRUCE WALLACE January 29 1990

As a young businessman in 1966, Paul Martin Jr. received a bloody welcome to the once rough-and-tumble style of Quebec politics. Three months after moving to Montreal from Toronto, Martin was working as a Liberal volunteer on his first provincial campaign when he inadvertently walked into the committee room of a rival candidate: popular professional wrestler Johnny Rougeau. Moments later, two of Rougeau’s hulking bodyguards accosted Martin and accused him of spying on their campaign. One of them then broke his nose with a single punch. But that rough greeting did not dissuade Martin from embroiling himself in politics over the next 24 years. And last week, when he announced his candidacy for the federal Liberal party leadership, the 51-year-old MP from LaSalle-Emard displayed a combative nature. With an aggressive endorsement of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, Martin quickly polarized the race into a charged—and potentially nasty—duel with one of the accord’s toughest critics and the man who is sure to be his main leadership opponent: former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Chrétien.

There was little nuance in the drawing of battle lines as Martin mixed his defence of the deal with personal swipes at his opponent. Just one day earlier, Chrétien, who is expected to announce his candidacy this week, had emerged from months of public silence to reject the accord’s provisions in a stinging—if dry—attack before an overflow audience of law students at the University of Ottawa. Those opening salvos thrust the race for the Liberal crown onto the public stage—and marked an end to a year of subterranean campaigning, which had failed to stir passions among many of the Liberal rank and file. But the spotlight on Martin and Chrétien left other leadership hopefuls scrambling for equal attention—among them Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, who also announced her candidacy last week (page 20). Toronto MPs John Nunziata, Dennis Mills and Jim Peterson and former Quebec environment minister Clifford Lincoln are also considering entering the race. But the field of potential candidates shrunk when veteran Winnipeg MP Lloyd Axworthy, citing a lack of money, said that he would not run.

But with the two acknowledged early leaders serving notice that the debate over Meech Lake will be at the forefront of the race, many Liberals expressed fears that a bitter head-tohead confrontation could leave the winner of the June 23 vote at the party’s leadership convention in Calgary badly bruised—and the party too seriously split to wage an effective election campaign. The accord, which would secure Quebec’s full participation in the Constitution, has bedevilled the Liberals since the deal was signed in June, 1987. And last week’s clash only revived and intensified the lingering tensions that characterized the unhappy reign of outgoing leader and Meech Lake supporter John Turner—who beat Chrétien for the leadership in 1984. “The race is already far less gentlemanly than the 1984 campaign,” said John Rae, Chrétien’s campaign chairman and also a friend of Martin’s. “The party has divided into maurauding gangs.”

For Martin, any concerns about the longterm health of the party were clearly dwarfed by the imperative need to stage a vigorous campaign kickoff. Long touted by backroom Liberals as a potential leadership candidate, the former businessman arrived in Ottawa in November, 1988, as a first-time MP with few political skills to match his lofty aspirations. Martin stumbled badly in his first forays onto the national stage, most memorably at a national caucus meeting in St. John’s last February when he made statements on free trade and Meech Lake that diverged from Turner's policy. He also appeared wounded by critical media coverage of early organizational flubs and his uncomfortable television style. As a result, his advisers expressed concern that a sluggish campaign launch would cement the perception among Liberals that Martin lacked the stylistic flourishes required to beat Chrétien—in turn fuelling renewed efforts to recruit another star pro-Meech candidate, such as Ontario Premier David Peterson.

For months, Martin had been honing his campaigning style by speaking to small gatherings of Liberals in their constituencies. Then, three days before officially entering the race, Martin retired to his graceful mountainside home in Montreal to prepare for the crucial announcement with a select group of advisers—including media consultant Jack Fleischmann, aide Daniel Despins and campaign manager Michael Robinson (page 21). “Paul has learned from his mistakes over the last six months said one senior Martin organizer who occasionally joined the sessions. “But we knew it had to be a no-mistake speech.”

Even as the Martin team was putting the finishing touches to the campaign kickoff, however, Chrétien thundered into the race in advance of the official announcement of his candidacy with his 50-minute diatribe against Meech Lake. Chrétien had been one of the main forces in negotiating the 1982 Constitution—which Quebec has refused to sign. As a result, he had been under tremendous pressure to clarify his constitutional stand. Still, his aides had not wanted to overexpose their candidate too far in advance of the Calgary convention. Instead, they had steered him away from public events, shadowing Martin’s back-roads tour in order to meet with potential Liberal deleates away from the scrutiny of the national media.

But Chrétien’s absence from the escalating public debate over Meech Lake provoked speculation that he might distance himself from his past criticism of the deal in order to strengthen his standing among Quebec Liberals—who overwhelmingly support the accord. Much of the pressure on Chrétien to intervene in the constitutional debate came from Pierre Trudeau. On several occasions since last summer, the former prime minister has warned Chrétien—directly and through other senior Liberals—that he was prepared to speak out against him during the leadership race unless Chrétien firmly and publicly opposed Meech Lake.

Chrétien and his advisers agonized over the speech for weeks. Drafts were faxed across the country to dozens of Chrétien supporters and other key Liberals—including Trudeau—to solicit reaction. In the end, Chrétien described as “a reasonable basis for negotiation” the five demands that Quebec brought to the Meech Lake talks: the right to a veto over major constitutional changes in the future, more power over immigration, a voice in Supreme Court nominations, restrictions on federal spending in provincial jurisdictions and recognition of Quebec’s “distinct society.” But he argued that, as it was written, the accord could “undermine our national institutions.” In particular, he said, Meech Lake called into question the effectiveness of the charter of rights and “ignored the enormous stake that Canadian citizens—not just governments—have in the Constitution.” Chrétien also called for an end to the hysteria surrounding the issue. “To characterize the debate as ‘all or nothing’ only serves to increase risks,” he said.

That message satisfied “ many of Meech Lake’s staunchest critics that Chrétien was prepared to take up their standard. Said former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Johnston, a passionate opponent of the deal: “I had been hoping for a long time to hear this speech from Jean.” But supporters of the accord derided Chrétien. “Mr. Chrétien had his opportunity to deal with the question of Canadian unity and he failed the test,” said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

In Montreal, meanwhile, Martin and his advisers scrambled to respond to Chrétien’s speech. Robinson pushed Martin to adopt a hard line in favor of the accord. The next day, as he announced his candidacy, Martin threw down the gauntlet. Firmly and unequivocally, Martin said that the accord “is worth fighting for. I believe it is worth saving.” The declaration ended any doubts about Martin’s position on the contentious accord. But, acknowledged one senior Martin adviser, “It is going to make our life more complicated on the national field.”

And although Martin faces a tough campaign, his strong opening performance clearly soothed the anxieties of some supporters still worried by the memory of his early gaffes. Those mistakes had been made all the more troubling by the expectations of many that Martin, having been immersed in politics all his life as the son of longtime Liberal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr., would display sound political instincts.

In fact, Martin’s father—who three times tried to capture the Liberal leadership himself, in 1948,1958 and again in 1968—discouraged his son’s early political ambitions. Instead, Martin Sr. recommended that his son first establish himself in a business career, a piece of advice that Martin Jr. followed. In 1967, the year after his graduation from Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, he became executive assistant to Maurice Strong, then chief executive officer of Montreal’s Power Corp. Rising up the Power hierarchy, Martin became president of Canada Steamship Lines, then held by Power, in 1976. In 1981, in partnership with shipping magnate Lawrence Pathy, he borrowed $180 million to buy the company, now known as The CSL Group Inc. Since acquiring Pathy’s interest in CSL’s shipping activities in 1988, Martin has resisted pressure to put the company up for public offering—partly so that his three sons, Paul, 23, James, 20, and David, 16, would retain the option of eventually taking over the business—now worth about $241 million.

But in spite of his flourishing business career, Martin continued to engage in backroom work for the Liberals. Finally, in 1988, confident in the management team he had assembled at CSL, Martin succumbed to the allure of politics and began to prepare for a run at the party leadership—a move supported by his wife, Sheila, although friends acknowledge that she remains unenthusiastic about the sacrifices required of political wives.

Some critics have said that Martin is driven by a desire to succeed where his father failed—a notion dismissed by those close to the candidate. “He has an almost old-fashioned sense of duty towards public life,” said Montreal advertising executive Anthony Chesterman, one of Martin’s closest friends. “But the idea that he is running for leader to accomplish what his dad never did is not true.”

Many of Martin’s closest friends are Quebec businessmen who have been involved in the spectacular expansion of the province’s economy over the past 20 years. And Martin himself enthusiastically endorses Quebec’s policy of using local capital held in such institutions as the province’s pension fund to finance the growth of internationally competitive companies as a model of industrial and economic expansion. Martin, who describes himself as “a Quebec nationalist and a Canadian nationalist,” says that the Quebec investment and growth formula can be adapted for use in disadvantaged regions of Canada.

Some party members have embraced Martin’s message. In Scarborough, Ont., earlier this month, an audience of 80 Liberals responded enthusiastically when Martin declared, “We cannot continue to sit at home in front of our televisions watching the world change, and wondering all the time when someone is at last going to come to Canada and build an industrial plant.” But not all Liberals are prepared to accept Martin’s blueprint for achieving economic expansion. Said Alfred Apps, a Toronto lawyer and longtime Liberal activist who says that he remains uncommitted to any candidate: “Martin is presenting the Harvard MBA and University of Western Ontario Business School theory of economics, which many are not prepared to accept.”

At the same time, many Liberals who express reservations about Martin’s bigger-isbetter economic views lost one of their most prominent voices last week. On Jan. 17, Axworthy, who had dropped frequent hints that he might enter the leadership contest, decided against it— a move that left the party facing the embarrassment of travelling to Calgary for a convention that could unfold without a single western candidate. Axworthy’s fund raisers had managed to collect pledges for only $200,000 of their $1-million target. Axworthy, who was in the forefront of the Liberal party’s campaign against free trade during the impassioned federal election campaign of 1988, publicly complained that he had found it impossible no obtain donations from a business community alienated by his stand against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. But some supporters blamed Axworthy’s own imprecise style and his refusal to commit himself more solidly to running for the leadership for the sputtering campaign’s failure to raise sufficient money. Said one aide: “If you are going to ask people to write big cheques on your behalf, you must demonstrate passion.”

In Quebec, meanwhile, both Martin and Chrétien face a desperate battle. The federal Liberals, who in 1980 held all but one of the province’s 75 seats, now hold only 11 of them. For his part, Martin is relying for help on the provincial Liberal party organization. In fact, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s organizers are likely to work with any federal leadership candidate who might defeat Chrétien, who, in addition to his opposition to Meech Lake, has feuded bitterly with Bourassa throughout his career. For their part, Chrétien’s forces are putting their faith in the belief that the right leader can uncover a now-silent and leaderless block of Quebecers who still believe in a strong federal system. But many Quebec Liberals say that the former cabinet minister has set himself an impossible task.

For now, the clear and hardened Meech Lake positions have crystallized the race between the champions of two competing directions for the party. In a race that has already bared animosity between the Martin and Chrétien camps and that still has five emotionally taxing months to go, Liberals may arrive in Calgary deeply divided. Such a split nurtures hope among the second tier of candidates, like Copps, who consider themselves to be potential tie breakers. But the divisions would also present the gravest threat yet to the unity of the once-grand Liberal party.