In the months following his bitter loss to John Turner at the Liberal party’s 1984 leadership convention, Jean Chrétien confided to friends that he often felt tormented. “Sometimes I wake up at night and wonder ‘What if?’” the former cabinet minister told one friend at the time. “I say to myself, ‘What if Trudeau had made me prime minister when he left, I shuffled the cabinet, waited six months and called the election. I could have been prime minister today.” Chrétien, who left active politics 19 months after the leadership convention, is still titillated by the merest scrap of political gossip.
But his friends insist that he is not thinking now of trying to wrest the leadership from Turner. Said Edward Goldenberg, Chrétien’s longtime friend and now his law partner in the Ottawa offices of the Toronto firm of Lang Michener Lash Johnston: “Jean is preoccupied with his legal clients, not politics.”
Despite the wide-
spread dissatisfaction with Turner’s performance reflected in opinion polls and expressed by some members of the party, the leader does not currently face any organized opposition. Declared a former Montreal-area MP, Pierre Deniger: “There is not a seed of doubt that Turner will take us into the next election.” And with the party deeply in debt and divided by tensions over free trade and the Meech Lake accord, the desire of other potential successors to lead the party into the next election has cooled. Said Douglas Franklin, a former director of organization for the party: “Even with a shortened leadership race, there would be tremendous divisiveness and bleeding of financial resources. I am not sure there would be enough time to heal the wounds.”
Sensitive: The reluctance to challenge Turner is reflected even among many of Chrétien’s most die-hard supporters. “The old network is still there, and people still talk,” said Gary McCauley, a
former Liberal MP from New Brunswick who has been a leading Chrétien supporter. “But people are back to getting on with their lives and businesses.” Still, friends say that Turner remains extremely sensitive to any political activity by Chrétien. And Chrétien’s political profile is sure to rise in the coming weeks when he campaigns in the Manitoba provincial election campaign on behalf of Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs, a close friend who also criticizes Turner’s support for the Meech Lake accord.
Loyal: But even Chrétien’s closest confidants say that the longer Turner retains the leadership, the less chance Chrétien has of ever succeeding him. Supporters of Montreal businessman Paul Martin Jr., a powerful potential contender, privately say that they would not want a leadership race soon because they feel that they could not yet match the organization that Chrétien could muster. Although Martin, 49, has publicly distanced himself from Turner’s free trade opposition, he remains personally loyal to the leader and refuses to discuss the leadership issue. “Liberals should not be saying one thing about the leader publicly and another in private,” declared Martin. “I support John Turner.”
Many Liberals also say that a leadership race might not produce many other impressive candidates. Other likely contenders include high-profile MPs Sheila Copps and Lloyd Axworthy. But neither has roots in the powerful Quebec wing of the party or support among senior Liberals. Raymond Garneau, Turner’s Quebec lieutenant, has privately discussed a future run at the leadership, but he told an associate recently that he thinks it would take at least four years to build his profile in English Canada. Ontario Premier David Peterson, a potentially powerful contender, has not indicated any interest in leaving provincial politics.
Silence: In fact, with an election likely later this year, even dissident Liberals unhappy with Turner’s leadership appear to agree with the philosophy of a political opponent: Conservative Senator Michel Cogger, an architect of the Tory movement to force Joe Clark to resign in 1983. “You can scream and complain about the leader all you want,” says Cogger. “But if the leader refuses to quit and if there is no party mechanism to force him out, then you are stuck with what you have got.” For many discontented Liberals, silence is the best support that they are likely to give their troubled leader.
—BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with MARY JANIGAN in Toronto
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.