COVER

RIGHT ON TRACK

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 29 1997
COVER

RIGHT ON TRACK

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 29 1997

RIGHT ON TRACK

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

As their reward for winning a second

majority government, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Finance Minister Paul Martin are given an audience with God, who allows them each one question about the future. “Please,”says Martin, “tell me whether we really can keep our election promises to eliminate the deficit, cut taxes and spend new money on social programs. ” Yes, my son,” is the response, “but not in your lifetime. ” Then, the Prime Minister asks: “Will we ever be able to stop talking about Quebec, the Constitution, and national unity?” “Perhaps, my son,” comes the answer, “but not in my lifetime. ”

In the mirth-filled world of official Ottawa, variations of that story have been used by senior Liberals—including Chrétien—and they usually draw a big laugh. One reason is that, in the nation’s capital, any attempt at humor from a prime minister is enough to trigger an obedient guffaw from everyone else. But another, as the Maclean’s/CBC News poll makes clear, is that when it comes to national unity and spending policies, the Liberals can afford to grin. In both those crucial areas, they approach the end of the first year of their new

mandate secure in the knowledge that a strong majority of respondents—including Quebecers—think the government is on the right track.

Within political circles, it is a given that Chrétien, when faced with two extreme choices, will delay a final decision as long as possible— and then, if he can, stake a position smack in the middle. That strategy sometimes maddens both opponents and allies—but pays dividends. Consider the eternal divisions within the Liberal caucus between those who want to launch an avalanche of new spending programs, and those who, like Martin, preach continued austerity. Once again under Chrétien, the middle ground appears to have prevailed, as Martin’s officials suggested in early December that the next budget will allocate some funds to new programs, but the relatively small amount of $300 million. In fact, no clear consensus exists among voters as to how government should behave in a postdeficit world (page 24)—so the decision to spend a little more while paying down the debt offers something for all.

The same split is reflected in the unity issue—and again, the government neatly skips by two contrasting views while arous-

ing a minimum of annoyance. For most of the past year, Chrétien and his ministers have emphasized the so-called Plan B approach to Quebec—a hardline stance that emphasizes the negative potential effects of sovereignty. Now, while 37 per cent of poll respondents in Quebec say the government is being “too tough” on the province, only five per cent in the rest of Canada agree. Most importantly, a majority of respondents—even in Quebec— agree that the aggressive posture is achieving its goal of making separation less likely.

All of which makes the outlook for the coming year rosy for the Liberals—and correspondingly bleak for the opposition parties. Half a year after the June 2 election, the poll’s findings indicate that no other party can match the Liberals’ credibility on the economy and national unity in all regions. Once again, Chrétien’s ability to find a common ground between two extremes seems to be prevailing. And on the unity issue, the chasm has widened through the 1990s—witness the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords and the razor-thin result of the October, 1995, referendum.

Yet Chrétien, while widely criticized at the time, remains far and away the politician of choice among English-speaking Canadians to lead them into another referendum. In Quebec, although he trails far behind Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest in that assessment, he is still the choice of one in four Quebecers—and no other party leader appears to have any relevance on the federalist side in the debate. Similarly, while Preston Manning and Reform have made tax cuts and deficit reduction their twin mantra, the liberals recognize that Canadians, after years of government belt-tightening, are now concerned about declining standards in such areas as education and health care. By promising to put some new money aside for those areas while continuing overall spending cuts, the Liberals tap into both Reform’s support and the 23 per cent of Canadians, according to the poll, who want more money spent on social programs.

The Liberals score high marks on two key issues-deficit cutting and national unity

Over the years, Chretien’s habit of mangling metaphors and sometimes offering up verb-free sentences has made him a figure of fun. But no one has been able to dislodge him from his control of the middle-of-road territory. In the last election, the Tories tried in some ways to mimic the Liberals, balancing a call for further cuts with a promise to maintain high levels of spending for social programs.

Moreover, Charest is arguably the most charismatic and telegenic of the leaders in either official language. But while the Liberals took 155 seats and formed a majority government, the Tories won just 20 seats. Most of those were in the Atlantic provinces, where, paradoxically, voters ignored Charest’s right-wing economic talk—they voted for the Tories to punish the Liberals for their previous cuts.

The Liberals’ apparent success in those two areas, in fact, has overshadowed their less-skilled, more controversial handling of a host of other issues, including the abruptly shortened inquiry into Canadian military abuses in Somalia, dithering over the botched privatization of Pearson airport, and their apparent reversal of opinion over the need to purchase new helicopters for the military.

As well, the Liberals concede that their popularity on those two big-ticket issues could suffer if, for example, the public does not like the budget expected in Lebruary, or if Premier Lucien Bouchard succeeds in reviving sovereigntist passions. Cautions an adviser to Chrétien: “We always like to be in the middle—provided, of course, that the centre is holding firm.” So far, it is. And that, more than any joke, is what keeps the Liberals smiling. □