Backstage

Watch the Liberals and learn

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 4 1999
Backstage

Watch the Liberals and learn

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 4 1999

Watch the Liberals and learn

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

During the 1990 Liberal leadership campaign, organizers for candidate Paul Martin cooked up what they thought was a surefire scheme to take the mickey out of front-runner Jean Chrétien. The race was taking place during the height of the bitter debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which was highly popular in Quebec. Martin supported it, and Chrétien did not. During a crucial candidates’ debate in Montreal, Martin supporters planned to embarrass Chrétien by chanting Vendu, vendu (“sellout”) when he stood up to speak. The trouble was that many Martin supporters were Anglos bused in from outside Quebec who didn’t speak or understand French. At the designated time, they leapt up and started chanting Fon-due, fondue—leaving the impression that what they really wanted was a sweet snack. Needless to say, the protest fizzled.

With the House of Commons set to resume on Oct. 12, and as plans move into final stages for the January meeting of the United Alternative movement in Ottawa, the people hoping to unite Canada’s right can learn from that 1990 episode, and its aftermath. Relations between Martin and Chrétien became so messy that Martin, on the eve of the vote at the leadership convention in Calgary, refused to say if he would even run for office in a party led by Chrétien. His archrival, meanwhile, was preoccupied with trying to heal policy divisions ranging from the constitutional debate to the fact the Liberals were still officially and resolutely anti-free trade. In short, the main players appeared to neither like each other nor agree on key issues, and the party seemed an excellent bet to remain in opposition, where it had languished the previous six years. But within a little more than three years, the Liberals had overcome policy differences and won an election, and Martin and Chrétien, while still unlikely to go bowling together, formed a working alliance that has been the cornerstone of the party’s legislative and electoral success.

Now, some members of Reform and the Progressive Conservatives are going to try to pull a similar trick, and conjure up a successful future out of the divided, directionless present. No matter where you sit, there are lots of reasons to wish them well, just as there’s every reason to want to watch pigs fly. In both cases, it would be a great thing to see—but neither may ever get airborne. A united right would force the Liberals to decide what they stand for, provoke a clear twoway policy debate and clean up the political landscape.

To make that happen, the Liberals’ foes need to study the factors that make the Liberals successful. To begin, the Liberals understand that in a smoothly functioning political party, people matter more than policy. A party is a

living, breathing organism, and friendships, favours and shared histories matter more in the end than debates over tariff rates and manpower agreements. You seldom turn your back on your own history: that’s why warhorses like Lloyd Axworthy and Herb Gray have stayed with the party as it morphed from Trudeau Big Spenders to Turner Protectionists to Chrétiens Tory Clones.

Another lesson is that it’s OK to draw a public line in the sand, so long as you don’t actually stick to it. Compromise is key: Martin talked down Chrétien before the leadership convention, but swiftly fell into line when it was over. Chrétien also compromised when things counted: in 1993, even after Martin refused his initial overtures, the new Prime Minister persuaded his former rival to take the second-most important role in government, that of finance minister.

Then, there’s the importance of keeping contacts open in private, no matter how nasty things get in public. When Martin’s people started bashing Chrétien too aggressively in 1990, John Rae, Chrétiens best friend and adviser, got on the phone to friends in the Martin camp and arranged a lunch. In the end, we’re on the same side, he said, so calm down. They did so.

That was possible because Liberals agree on one thing above all: the importance of power. If you’re not in government, nothing else matters, because nothing can be achieved. It’s better to change views and sit in the cabinet than hold the line and watch life from the opposition benches. That’s the opposite of many Reformers, who would stay in opposition forever rather than temper their views. So far, they’re likely to get their wish. Those people are like the original Bruce Springsteen fans who resented everything their man did after he made it big with his Bom to Run album: they distmst popularity, and only like one another.

The Tories have a different problem: they háven’t changed, but the world has. Sure, the Liberals have successfully claimed their policies as their own, but it’s time to get over that. And yes, the fact Reform has more than twice as many seats with about the same percentage of voter support makes a sham of the electoral system, but that’s how it is: drive on, and learn the new rules of the road. Both parties need to decide whether gaining power is the most important goal, and if so, what compromises they will consider to achieve that. Some are necessary. One step is to remember that, as the ancient Middle Eastern proverb puts it, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Then, they must decide who is their real enemy: the Liberals—or each other. While they’re at it, try the fondue.