THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Will the PM face a caucus challenge?

The unity crisis has made it obvious that Jean Chrétien, both charming and superficial, is best described in the phrase: Deep down, he’s shallow

Peter C. Newman January 22 1996
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Will the PM face a caucus challenge?

The unity crisis has made it obvious that Jean Chrétien, both charming and superficial, is best described in the phrase: Deep down, he’s shallow

Peter C. Newman January 22 1996

Will the PM face a caucus challenge?

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

The unity crisis has made it obvious that Jean Chrétien, both charming and superficial, is best described in the phrase: Deep down, he’s shallow

PETER C. NEWMAN

The two-day federal Liberal caucus, being held in Vancouver at month’s end, could turn into a highly significant confrontation between the onetime Teflon Prime Minister and his increasingly disillusioned party faithful.

The official agenda of the closed-door meetings calls for MPs and senators to use the opportunity to get an initial—and confidential—briefing on Paul Martin’s March budget, and to make political representations to the finance minister on items they would like to see emphasized or dropped in that certain-to-be-contentious document. Since most caucus members agree with the direction of Martin’s initiatives, this won’t be a stormy session.

Also on the agenda will be a discussion of whether Jean Chrétien should prorogue the Commons and begin a new session with a speech from the throne now or in the spring, or continue the current Parliament and pass its proposed legislation. The House of Commons is currently set to reconvene after a seven-week-long break on Feb. 6, so the end of January is Chrétien’s last chance to decide on prorogation. At the moment, there are major struggles going on in the PMO and PCO about the timing of a throne speech. None has been drafted, because no one seems to know what to put in it. (One alternative being discussed is to postpone the new session until after Easter, which would allow Parliament to deal with most of the business currently on the order paper, including the government’s proposals to extend constitutional vetoes to various provinces and regions.)

Much more controversial will be questions about the PM’s mishandling of last fall’s referendum campaign, and the subsequent decline of his credibility and authority on the unity issue. At the same time, frustrated Liberals plan to demand that their leader come up with a viable national unity program. “If you were to ask me about our plat-

form for dealing with Quebec, I’d tell you where we’ve been,” one senior caucus member told me last week. “But I couldn’t tell you where we’re heading. It’s obvious that the PM has not recovered his energy on this issue.” In that context, energy is a generous euphemism for self-confidence, which Chrétien lost last Oct. 30.

Another topic high on the agendas of some of the more rambunctious caucus members is the urgent need for Chrétien to change his closest advisers, whose main aim seems to be to maintain themselves aloof from any contact with real life and people with real problems. Sure to be discussed will be the cabinet shuffle now expected to take place the week before the Vancouver meetings. The role of British Columbia’s contingent is expected to be strengthened by the appointment of an extra minister, probably Dr. Hedy Fry, who holds Kim Campbell’s former downtown Vancouver seat, to health and welfare.

Yet another urgent agenda item will be the recruitment of credible federal representation in Quebec, since Lucienne Robillard, brought into cabinet after a February, 1995, byelection to handle relations with Quebec City, has

proved to be a bust. And Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet’s efforts to destabilize Daniel Johnson’s leadership is a no-gainer, the worst blunder by the Chrétien government since the justice department accused Brian Mulroney of forcing Air Canada to buy the Airbuses it already intended to order.

You don’t undermine the leader you have unless you can get the leader you want. Johnson may not be as slick as Lucien Bouchard, but his cause is just and his spirit is willing. Ouellet’s proposal that Tory chief Jean Charest switch parties and lead the Quebec Liberals is about as likely to happen as Preston Manning getting a decent haircut. Charest has charisma to burn, but like Pierre Trudeau in his time, the Sherbrooke, Que., politician with the bird’s nest hairdo, is admired in Quebec because he is a worldly federalist, an essential psychic counterweight to such inward-looking nationalists as Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau. (Guy St. Pierre, the genius Montreal industrialist who rescued the Lavalin empire, is the logical choice to succeed Johnson, but his talents will better be applied in the federal arena.)

Meanwhile, there’s a large and growing slice of chattering-class opinion on the Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto loop championing the idea that Chrétien ought to recognize that the country has reached a state of national emergency (if not yet panic) and form a national government. He would then invite Charest to become deputy prime minister and take on the Quebec file. (The only historical, post-Confederation equivalent was the Liberal-Conservative wartime coalition Union Government Sir Robert Borden put together to win the 1917 election on a proconscription platform.)

While Charest is the most credible politician in the country (which makes him the equivalent of a man walking on his knees in a land of midgets), recruiting him into cabinet would signal the Liberals’ desperation and bankruptcy. Charest himself is unlikely to be tempted, since his strength is based on carving out an independent Tory mandate for future elections. Besides, Chrétien’s advisers don’t believe they really need Charest inside the cabinet because he’s dedicated to the federalist cause anyway.

Overt caucus attacks on the PM will be blunted by the realization that Jean Chrétien is the only prime minister we’ve got, and that his fate runs with the fate of the nation. Yet the current unity crisis has made it painfully obvious that Chrétien is like the character, both charming and superficial, described by the American novelist Peter De Vries as someone who “deep down is shallow.”

Getting the government party out of Ottawa is bound to broaden its horizons. But what the Chrétien government really needs is a fresh lease on life, the kind of creative energy its activists were able to summon in opposition when the Liberal party’s Red Book was being drafted. Everything seemed possible then; now, even survival has become a negotiable goal.