CANADA

Caucus cleavages

No matter the issue or the level of hypocrisy, the federal Liberals used to put on a public show of unity. No more.

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 18 1995
CANADA

Caucus cleavages

No matter the issue or the level of hypocrisy, the federal Liberals used to put on a public show of unity. No more.

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 18 1995

Caucus cleavages

No matter the issue or the level of hypocrisy, the federal Liberals used to put on a public show of unity. No more.

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

The natural instinct of Liberals, Jean Chrétien wrote in the updated version of his autobiography, Straight From the Heart, amounts to “covering a lot of ground by staying in the centre.” To that, he added cheerfully, “If you’re in the centre, the centre moves.” All of which is an elegant way of saying that when it comes to ideology, the Liberals believe that to govern is to choose— and before anything else, the Liberals choose to govern.

Throughout their history, what has been remarkable about the federal Liberals is the choreographed grace with which they pirouette. Each of the past three decades has brought at least one major shift. Think, for example, of the overnight transformation from opposition to support of wage-and-price controls in the 1970s and the metamorphosis from the centralist government of Pierre Trudeau to the pro-Meech Lake party of John Turner in the 1980s.

Then, Chrétien discovered that free trade was not the evil Conservative idea that Turner opposed, but a wondrous Liberal concept.

No matter the issue or level of hypocrisy, the Liberals invariably appeared unanimous.

No more. For all the in-caucus complaints about Chrétien’s iron grip on power, he has arguably tolerated more public dissent from party members than any prime minister in recent memory. It used to be true that, at any given time, there was a “Liberal set of values,” which loyal members could chant like a mantra. Those loose values usually included belief in big government, big social programs, a preoccupation with Quebec, and social values that would win favor with anyone who has ever sipped designer water and eaten crustless sandwiches against a backdrop of potted ferns.

Now, pick any issue where the Liberal position was predictable, and the difference is apparent. The present Liberal caucus includes MPs who are vehemently opposed to abortion rights (Tom Wappel and Rosearme Skoke), strongly

against Justice Minister Allan Rock’s gun control legislation (many rural Ontario MPs and more than a few senators) and uneasy about expanding human rights protection for gays (an issue that will publicly split the caucus early in the new year). On a broader scale, they can’t even agree on cultural protectionism: the bitter debate over whether to allow American-owned bookstores into Canada is proving to be yet another source of public friction between high-profile Liberals.

Then there are splits that are less visible but no less intense. The two junior foreign affairs ministers, Christine Stewart and Raymond Chan, are both deeply committed to promoting human rights abroad, while their boss, Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, is not. On economic issues, such onetime lefties of the Trudeau days as Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy and House leader Herb Gray now watch mutely as International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren extols the most aggressive free trade policies this side of Margaret Thatcher.

To that, add this: the slings and arrows of outraged B.C. Liberal MPs played a key role in the government’s decision last week to belatedly give British Columbia a constitutional veto. Atlantic MPs are similarly upset about planned changes to unemployment insurance; Ontario MPs fear that their constituents, still hurting from recent provincial budget cuts, will rise up in revolt against the February budget; and Quebec MPs are cross with everyone but Chrétien over the country’s lukewarm response to the closeness of the Oct. 30 referendum.

Until now, the operating rule has been that Liberal MPs think whatever they want—just so long as they do whatever the Prime Minister wants. A party united by the taste for power is easiest to lead when the polls are high and things are good. The reverse is also true: when times are tough and the polls go south, it is easier to lead a party united by the power of shared ideals. That is not comforting news for Chrétien in the days ahead.