In pursuit of the undecided

Mary Janigan May 28 1984

In pursuit of the undecided

Mary Janigan May 28 1984

In pursuit of the undecided


Mary Janigan

The fight for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s job has narrowed to a showdown between two dramatically different men—the cool patrician John Turner and the scrappy streetfighter Jean Chrétien. During the past two months seven contenders have spent millions of dollars and travelled thousands of kilometres in search of support. But with only four weeks left in the Liberal leadership race, former finance minister Turner has maintained his campaign-long lead. His only serious challenge is Chrétien, Trudeau’s energy minister and a man who does not like Turner or his call for political change. Behind Turner and Chrétien, the other five contenders are now struggling painfully with the realization that they will not win. In consolation, they are dreaming of somehow affecting the final result by acting as power brokers during the convention itself.

The party and the polls agree: Chrétien is the only obstacle between Turner and the job that he has coveted for more than two decades. The Shawinigan, Que., lawyer is running flat-out on

an unabashed appeal to the heart, and he is calling on old loyalties and old debts. While Turner promises new schemes—often vaguely defined—and a new style, Chrétien has embraced the policies of the past. The problem for the Liberals who want continuity is that Chrétien may not be able to sustain it. Many Liberals have serious questions

‘Liberals would like to vote for the nice guy, but they have been smoked so often that Turner will be the many

about Chrétien and his potential. First, can he win the next election? Second, does he have the intellectual and organizational capability to do the job of Prime Minister?

The unusually large number of uncommitted delegates must find the answers to those questions before they vote June 16, because all camps agree that they have become the key to determining the winner. Roughly 1,000 of the

3,500 delegates have not yet decided who they want. Turner has anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300 votes, Chrétien between 700 and 900. Since the winner needs more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast, Chrétien must somehow win over most of the undecided if he is to catch Turner. With more than a touch of bravado, Chrétien’s strategists maintain that many of the uncommitted are covert Chrétien supporters who are unwilling to offend his rival. But it is more likely that the uncommitted are torn between the appeals of two starkly contrasting men—and dissatisfied with both. “Chrétien is of the heart, Turner is of the mind,” declared uncommitted delegate Philip Kotyk, a farmer and lawyer from Wadena, Sask. “My heart is with Chrétien, but I want someone who can win.”

The problem for Chrétien is that his strategists have not devised a plan to answer the questions of delegates like Kotyk. For the past two months Chrétien has delivered virtually the same fiery speech to delegates at every stop. It is full of patriotic sentiment and small “1” liberal commitment to the policies of the Trudeau era. Chrétien proclaims that minority language rights are a national responsibility. And he insists that Canada needs a strong “activist” government bent on strengthening the national economic union. Chrétien’s advisers angrily charge that because he espouses many current policies, his rivals unfairly accuse him of having no ideas of his own. They have rejected any suggestion that he dwell on program specifics or break with any major initiatives of the Trudeau years. The result is a campaign strategy that they are unwilling or unable to change—at a time when many delegates are clearly unsatisfied with what they now see. “They are desperately searching for something to give the campaign an added boost, but they cannot figure out what that could be,” said a Liberal close to the Chrétien camp. “They think they are not going to win on policy. But they also have not been able to combat the view that Turner is the one possibility of winning the next election. They have simply exhausted this round of campaigning.” Blighted: Because they will not change their own campaign, Chrétien and his strategists are hoping for a major Turner mistake. Clarifications and retractions over federal protection of minority language rights blighted the early days of the Turner campaign. And Chrétien reaped the benefits with a crooked grin and a happy boast: “I do not drop the ball very often.” But Turner is close to the finish line now, controlled and far more confident. He

does not plan to take any major gambles over the next few weeks, and it is unlikely that anyone will lure him into another major mistake.

That leaves Chrétien pitching from the heart—and at the mercy of his five lesser political opponents. If the uncommitted delegates do accept his appeal to loyalty and tradition, he could emerge from the first ballot trailing Turner by fewer votes than many Liberals now expect. He must then hope that most of the five other contenders deliver their delegates to him. He can count on support from Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan and Indian Affairs Minister John Munro. But Economic Development Minister Donald Johnston would likely go to Turner, and Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan is determinedly neutral, hoping to be a convention power broker. And, although Employment Minister John Roberts has supporters with close links to Chrétien, he may stay in the race until he is eliminated and withold crucial votes. Chrétien’s strategists are acutely aware of the need for second-ballot backing—and they have maintained strong links with the other camps. “Those Turner guys have really run roughshod over the other candidates and the grassroots [members] across the country,” complained a strategist working for a second-tier candidate. “They had better get a first-ballot victory or be damn close to it because they have done nothing to cultivate a warm feeling toward

their campaign or their candidate.”

While the contenders fight their family feuds, Brian Mulroney and his Opposition Conservatives have been watching uneasily. Earlier this month, in a dramatic reversal, the Liberals shot ahead of the Tories in the Gallup poll for the first time in 30 months. The Tories’ private polls show they are still ahead. But they say they are concerned that the situation may change with the arrival of a new Liberal leader, especially if that leader is Turner. A Gallup poll of Liberal voters released last week showed that 30 per cent would prefer Turner while 29 per cent want Chrétien. A significant third of the respondents were uncommitted. And a Southam poll of almost 1,500 Canadians is even more unsettling for the Tories. It showed that 36 per cent would choose Turner as Prime Minister, while 35 per cent would vote for Mulroney. In pointed contrast, 43.5 per cent would prefer Mulroney if the opponent was Chrétien. Chrétien finished well behind the Conservative leader with 36-per-cent support.

Deepened: That poll deepened serious—and still unanswered—questions about Chrétien’s ability to win the next election. At the same time, Chrétien was trying to buck tradition: the Liberals’ long practice of alternating anglophone and francophone leaders. The party has clung to that tradition as a way of soothing the tensions and assuaging the fears between the country’s two founding cultures. Chrétien now maintains that the party is mature enough to ignore that pattern and simply choose the best man for the job. But he is following a Prime Minister who held power for almost 16 years and who provoked powerful resentments when he officially elevated French to equality with English. “People like and admire Jean Chrétien, but they are concerned about electing another FrenchCanadian Prime Minister,” declared Lois Fjeldsted, president of a Liberal association in Brandon, Man.

Legacy: Chrétien has both helped and hurt his own case. His strong showing among delegates in British Columbia and Newfoundland has shown that his appeal cuts across linguistic lines. But he has also chosen to run as the guardian of the Trudeau legacy, firmly identifying himself in the process with the triumphs and failures of that era. As a result, Chrétien may simply reawaken old animosities. As Turner supporter Tim Stoldalka, a Regina lawyer, declared, “In their hearts, Liberals would like to vote for Chrétien because he is such a nice guy, but we are so used to getting smoked electorally that Turner will be the choice.”

Chrétien’s record during the Trudeau years has also prompted delegates to question his ability to be Prime Minister. His administrative and political style has been both distinctive and con-

troversial. In each of the eight ministries that he has handled since 1967, he has concentrated on the key problems and often solved them. In three years, from 1969 to 1972 at the Indian and northern affairs department, he managed to talk the provinces into creating 10 new national parks. That success won him a $5 wager with A. P. Frame, the former president of the parks association who wrote on the still-uncashed cheque: “I never before paid a losing bet with so much downright pleasure.” Tales of other Chrétien victories against heavy odds are now legendary. In late 1981 he cornered Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry and former Saskatchewan attorney general Roy Romanow in an Ottawa conference centre

kitchen and worked out an accord to bring the Constitution home with an amending formula and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His friendship with McMurtry still endures. Last week the prominent Ontario Tory said he would accept an invitation to a private fund-raising dinner for Chrétien in Toronto. In his energy portfolio in June, 1983, he managed to hammer out a new pricing accord for

Alberta oil with a minimum of bitterness—an agreement that defused some of the intense federal-provincial tensions over energy policy. “He deals with the major things because sometimes only he can solve them,” said a longtime political associate. “He expects the civil servants to deal with the smaller j things.” A veteran Liberal aide added that Chrétien is not ineffectual or lazy “but he does choose one or two things with high profile for political mileage and that’s all he does.”

That trouble-shooting style of governing means that Chrétien is rarely involved in daily departmental business or long-term planning. He insists on one-page briefing memos, and his offi-

cials often have trouble getting his sustained attention for substantial briefings on complicated policy matters. He misses most cabinet committee meetings and he often skips full cabinet sessions. In his impatience, he can sometimes appear dictatorial: when he chaired the social development cabinet committee from 1980 to 1982, he tried to speed up the B proceedings by cutting 1 short debate and setting o strict time limits. And 2 when MacGuigan inherited his portfolio from Chrétien in 1982, he asked the bureaucrats to start planning widespread and long-overdue revisions to the antiquated Criminal Code. During Chrétien’s tenure, few policy initiatives were developed and morale was low. “There is a lot of surface politics there—but no substance,” said a disenchanted bureaucrat in the energy department.

Strength: The success of a Chrétien government would likely depend on the strength of his team. He has a reputation for attracting and keeping talented staff members. Former aide John Rae, for one, is now a vice-president of Power Corp. in Montreal and campaign manager for his former boss. And Chrétien’s longtime adviser, Eddie

Goldenberg, is a bright and canny political fixer—a man who knows the system and how to get things through it. “A Chrétien government would be fun—freewheeling, flexible, partisan and open,” said another Liberal aide. “It would have a record of formidable achievements because Chrétien is a conciliator. He can make a deal, he can take a hard situation and bring about a resolution.”

Critics counter that the team—not Chrétien—would be running the country. They speak yearningly of Trudeau’s depth and disparagingly of the Chrétien penchant for one-page memos. “The worse side of politics is oversimplification of the issues,” admitted a Chrétien friend. “I think he lacks the ‘quiet centre’ that flows from a coherent view of government.”

Comparisons with the polished Turner have haunted and irritated Chrétien throughout the campaign. Although Turner was raised by his widowed mother, Phyllis, on a government economist’s salary, she was a civil servant with powerful and influential friends. Her marriage in 1945 to Frank Ross, a wealthy B.C. in-

dustrialist, confirmed Turner’s status in a circle of power and privilege. By contrast, Chrétien was born in a suburb of Shawinigan on Jan. 11, 1934, the 18th of 19 children and the eighth of the nine who survived infancy. To support his large family, his father needed two part-time jobs besides working at the local paper mill. The Chrétiens lived in a tarpaper house in a rough, rundown part of Shawinigan, and there were fre-

quent fistfights outside the Chez Laberge pool room next door. “I learned the techniques of street fighting early,” Chrétien said. “You induce the other guy to let his guard down and when it is, bang, you hit him.”

Disputes: His fascination with politics developed in his early years. Chrétien’s father was the Liberal organizer in the local parish for 40 years, and young Jean was passing out pamphlets and setting up chairs for political meetings when he was 12 years old. By 16 he was locked in political disputes at the pool hall. At 18, he began spending his summers at the paper mill, working as a laborer on hot and exhausting shifts that often filled all seven days of the week. That same year he met his first and only love, 16-year-old Aline Châine, the daughter of a local aluminum company worker. The couple has been married almost 27 years, and there are three children, including an adopted Indian son from Inuvik. From his adolescence, Chrétien sought an escape from factory work. Said the candidate: “I was going to study law at Laval because I knew that was the best way to get elected in Saint-Maurice riding—to be a lawyer, a man who can deal with all the problems of all the people. The idea to become a politician just grew on me.” When that decision was made, his political career developed smoothly. He won his first federal election in 1963, representing the riding of Saint-Maurice-Laflèche. By 1965 he was parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson. In 1966 he did the same job for then-Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp and, although his English was poor, he forced himself to go across the country defending government economic policies. His diligence caught Trudeau’s attention, and from 1967 Chrétien moved from minister without portfolio through revenue, Indian Affairs, Treasury Board, trade, finance, justice and social development, and energy. In the finance department, particularly, his penchant for simple approaches often made him appear poorly briefed. But he has never seriously embarrassed himself or the government, and his honesty and patriotism

have never been questioned.

Chrétien’s achievements sometimes seem unlikely because of his carefully fostered public image as the self-styled “little guy” from Shawinigan, the street-smart fighter and perennial underdog. His style is blunt, earthy and endearing. He gives loyalty—but he demands it in return. When Labour Minister André Ouellet and other Quebec MPs chose to support Turner this spring, Chrétien berated them at a closed-door caucus session, reminding them of his fund-raising efforts for them. A victim of infantile paralysis, he has a crooked grin that once prompted columnist Dalton Camp to remark that Chrétien looks “like the driver of the getaway car.” Chrétien countered, “At least I don’t talk out of both sides of my mouth like a

lot of politicians.” But when he is betrayed, he rarely forgives or forgets. Still, almost all his constituents talk of his generosity and kindness. And on a cold day in Saskatoon recently, Chrétien brought his driver into a meeting rather than let the man shiver outside.

Relentless: On the road during the campaign, his style is unaffected. He carries his own suitcase, prefers taxis to limousines and travels with only one aide. The pace is relentless, with Chrétien constantly in motion. Campaign manager Rae has found that the best way to get the minister’s attention during a hectic day is to talk while he is walking to and from appointments.

Chrétien’s relationship with his home province is complicated by the perilous politics of class and language. To English Canada, Chrétien portrays himself

as a lovable “pea-souper and proud of it”—and he was one of the few Liberals who remained personally popular throughout the West during the Trudeau era. He often told Alberta crowds that he has 250 cousins scattered across that province—adding that the family could gang up and win a riding for the Grits. He has always used self-deprecating humor to put other people at ease and to defuse the prejudices of linguistic differences. Last week, in front of an English-speaking crowd in Newfoundland, he answered a question in French. Then he grinned while the crowd laughed: “I don’t have to translate because I’m sure you all understood every word.” But that routine has offended some French-speaking Canadians who feel that Chrétien is popular

with anglophones because he makes them feel secure—even superior. Le Devoir’s editor in chief, Lise Bissonnette, once wrote that Chrétien travels through English Canada “doing this number of the ill-spoken, vulgar Quebecer, the happy slave who asks his master for more punishment.” Chrétien retorted that his critics were snobs.

Whatever the reason, most senior Quebec ministers are neutral or in Turner’s camp. Many MPs contend that with Chrétien as Prime Minister they simply could not win their seats. Others are looking for a clear break with the past. Said Quebec back-bencher JeanClaude Malépart: “For Turner there is real enthusiasm.” Added another Quebec back-bencher, Jean Lapierre, a onetime Chrétien protégé: “Jean has done his part, but it is time for a

Chrétien has one month to convince his fellow Liberals that the traditions of the past are worthy of preservation. If enough of them agree, he will become the 17th Prime Minister of Canada. If they do not, he intends to stay in Ottawa anyway—and, if asked, he would even serve as the new leader’s Quebec lieutenant. “I am in politics to stay if the conditions are satisfactory,” he declared recently. And that means—win or lose—Canadians will see a lot more of the man with the long memory, the short fuse and the passionate convictions.

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