By their numbers alone, they are a potent force that all the Liberal leadership contenders must try to attract. They are the ex officio convention delegates—about 1,600 current or former legislators and party office holders who are automatically entitled to vote for the new leader—and together they will cast more than a third of the ballots at next month’s convention. Because of the influence they might exert on rank-and-file delegates, their importance extends beyond their numbers, and, as a result, candidates have been courting them very vigorously. After interviews last week with ex officio delegates in every province, Maclean’s found that John Turner holds the lead among the party establishmentbut it is not as wide a lead as he might hope.
In interviews with the Liberal MPs and former MPs, MLAs, riding presidents, party officials and senators who qualify as ex officio delegates, Maclean’s learned that Turner was the favorite of the party brass in the West, Ontario and—narrowly—Quebec. In the Atlantic region the race between Turner and Energy Minister Jean Chrétien was too close to call. Among the 145 Liberal MPs Turner appeared to have the support of about 60, while Chrétien had roughly 50. Turner claims the support of at least 12 cabinet ministers, while Chrétien has six. According to the Maclean’s canvass, all the other candidates combined could only claim the open support of a half-dozen MPs. The rest of the caucus—including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Finance Minister Marc Lalonde and External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen—were keeping their opinions private.
Endorsements: Of 3,589 eligible voting delegates, 1,006 can attend without seeking election, according to the latest available party figures. Another 609 represent such groups as youth wings, women’s associations and provincial executives. The remaining 1,974 delegates have been elected at riding meetings. The informal Maclean ’s tally, based on interviews with automatic delegates, suggests that although Turner snapped up endorsements from MPs and other insiders by opening his leadership campaign early, Chrétien has subsequently narrowed the gap. “It is strictly between those two men, no one else,” said Maurice Malouin, an undecided supporter and president of the Quebec riding association in Beauharnois-Salaberry. “Now we must evaluate issues and decide who can win for us.”
While perceived ability to lead the
party to victory in the next general election may indeed be the deciding factor, individual delegates advanced a wide variety of other reasons for choosing one candidate over another. Martin Poulin, president of Quebec’s Beauce riding association, explained that he intended to support Turner “because my MP is supporting him. It is as simple as that.” Linda Thibeault, president of Toronto’s Scarborough Centre riding association, lists Employment Minister John Roberts as her first choice and Chrétien as her second. As for Turner, says Thibeault: “I don’t like his politics, his background or his personal history
in cabinet. I could not support him.” Farther west, Alain Hogue, president of the St. Boniface Liberal association, decided after considerable soul-searching to support Turner over Chrétien because he felt only Turner has a chance of making the Liberals into a truly national party again. Turner, says Hogue, is “perceived as being best for the West.”
Overall, the leanings of the ex officio delegates probably mirror those of the party at large. Timothy Hamilton, a political aide to leadership candidate John Roberts, said that while insiders within the party’s central organizations generally support Turner, Chrétien does better among riding presidents—“the real grassroots of the party.” But Ottawa MP John Evans, a Turner backer, said that
ex officio delegates tend to favor Turner more than members at large and that fewer of the insiders are still undecided or uncommitted.
Gratitude: Like other Liberals, many automatic delegates were struggling to reconcile an emotional pull to Chrétien with a cold-blooded political bet on Turner. Said Stephen Huza, vice-president of the Quebec executive of the federal Liberal party: “Heaven knows I have nothing against Chrétien and I could very easily work under him. But I think the economy is what is on people’s minds most right now and I think that Turner is the guy most people think has
the answers.” In sum, Chrétien makes a claim to friendship and gratitude from party workers who have known him for years. Turner, on the other hand, makes no promises but offers the prospect of power in the years ahead. The conflict between sentiment and power leaves the party brass with the same hard choice as the party at large.
Reported, by Diane Luckow in Vancouver, Gordon Legge in Calgary, Dale Eisler in Regina, Laura Langston in Winnipeg, Robert Block in Toronto, Anthony Wilson-Smith in Montreal, Jackie Webster in Fredericton, Stephen Kimber and Sherri Aikenhead in Halifax, Kennedy Wells in Charlottetown, Bonnie Woodworth in St. John's, Heather Stockstill in Whitehorse and Sandra Souchotte in Yellowknife.
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