Business

A lost cause

Copps calls it bargaining, others see a messy retreat

Bruce Wallace June 7 1999
Business

A lost cause

Copps calls it bargaining, others see a messy retreat

Bruce Wallace June 7 1999

A lost cause

Copps calls it bargaining, others see a messy retreat

Bruce Wallace

It is not in Jean Chrétiens nature to spend much time worrying about the sensitivities of his cabinet ministers. So when he woke up in Calgary one morning last week and, after listening by phone to his daily briefing on Kosovo, asked aides in his Ottawa office, “How’s Sheila doing?” it was a measure of the soft spot he retains for Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. The day before, Copps had performed one of the most unpleasant tasks in politics: publicly explaining why a clear climbdown from a position of principle was, in fact, nothing less than a wise and winning compromise. The Prime Minister was wondering how she was holding up.

The Copps pirouette came over Bill C-55, legislation she introduced to protect Canadian magazines from American incursions into the Canadian advertising market. It was a bill she had loudly and aggressively defended as essential to the Canadian industry’s survival. She insisted that Washington’s threats of mas-

sive retaliation were nothing but bullying—diplomatic trash talk to be ignored. The Liberals, as it turned out, could not ignore it. And Copps’s highwire act left even friends “scratching our heads at why she let herself get so far out on a limb without any way back,” as one put it. The result was the messy retreat that was widely seen as a personal defeat.

Not that the scrappy Hamilton MP would accept that interpretation. Her hardline stance had been nothing more than positioning—“basic Negotiating 101 ”—Copps told Macleans. “I’m from Steeltown and steelworkers know how to negotiate.” Those critics who said she was happily taking Canada into a trade war with the United States were “crazy,” she said. “I had no interest in a trade war; I wanted a deal. I’ve been elected in every election since 1984 and it was not by being a political idiot.”

Yet it is hard to think of a minister less likely to fit with Chrétiens cautious governing style than Copps. The Prime Minister likes his politics without bumps. Copps seems to steer for them.

“I’m not saying she picks fights,” says friend and former policy adviser Andrew McDermott. “But when one lands in her lap, her attitude is: damn the torpedoes.”

Employing that confrontational style through a series of battles has left Copps ever more isolated among her Liberal colleagues (cabinet ministers may have originally blessed Bill C-55 but they scrambled to distance themselves from its radioactive fallout). The magazine fight ratded her. Her dare to the Americans brought her into head-banging conflict with two of Chrétiens confidants: his nephew, Raymond Chrétien, who is Canada’s ambassador to Washington; and longtime adviser Eddie Goldenberg. Both men were appalled at the thought of a trade war’s damage and fought her all the way. Washington also drew blood by proposed retaliation on the steel industry, the heart of Copps’s Hamilton base. “Believe me, Sheila really felt the pressure,” said her spokesman Jacques Lefebvre.

That Copps plowed ahead signalled her belief in the cause—and a conviction she had the Prime Minister’s backing. “When the PM says in cabinet, ‘I’ve heard the arguments and I’m with you,’ it is human nature to think you are on the right track,” said a Copps adviser. But in the end, Chretien also recognized the need to deal. With trade officials on both sides locked in a death grip, the Prime Minister took the issue to a higher level. In Washington this April for the NATO summit, Chrétien raised the magazine dispute and the spectre of a trade war with U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton told Chrétien he had never heard of the problem. It wasn’t on the American political radar.

With negotiators still spitting at each other in May, Chrétien again went around them by calling Clinton (furious at reports she was excluded from the final push for a deal, Copps repeatedly insisted: “It was my suggestion to call the President”). With everyone instructed to bend, a deal was finally reached. “If I hadn’t been so strong, we would not have gotten what we did,” Copps claims. “And I would not for a moment,” she adds, “have done it differendy.”