For a self-professed noncontender, Jean Chrétien was behaving suspiciously like a political hopeful as the turmoil surrounding the hard-pressed federal Liberal Leader John Turner reverberated across Western Canada. Last week in Calgary Chrétien lunched with Calgary’s Mayor Ralph Klein two days before the popular civic leader was due to address an annual meeting in Lethbridge of the Alberta wing of the federal Liberal party. Emerging from that private luncheon, Klein—who is not a known adherent of any political party—called on Turner to step down. Referring to last week’s Gallup poll that found that 49 per cent of Canadian voters think Turner should resign as leader, Klein told the The Calgary Sun: “When you have got half the people in doubt, you should resign. It makes political common sense that you can’t take a party into an election when the leadership is in doubt.”
But Klein, re-elected in October with an overwhelming majority, had more to say—about Chrétien and about his own future. Said Klein: “If I were to become involved in federal politics, he is a person I could easily see as a leader.” It was a tantalizing statement from a politician who, after three terms as Calgary mayor and with the widely acclaimed Calgary Winter Olympics behind him, may be looking for a new challenge. There is a precedent: the late senator Harry Hays left Calgary city hall to win the Calgary South riding for the
Liberals in the 1963 federal election.
Chrétien refused to commit himself to—or rule out—any public campaign to wrest the leadership from Turner, who in recent weeks faced a revolt by members of his parliamentary caucus and unrest among Quebec Liberals. “I don’t say no, I don’t say yes,” he told reporters, following a speech to a soldout crowd of 500 that packed a dining hall at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology for a $75-a-plate dinner of roast buffalo. “I turned away at least 150 people,” said Roger Breault, the institute’s chief fund raiser, who organized the dinner to raise funds to restore the institute’s Gothic-style former main building. “Mr. Chrétien is very well liked in Alberta. And this is staunch Tory country.”
Chrétien, whose speech dealt with the Meech Lake constitutional accord, could not resist a few political asides. He joked that “there is one thing my wife and all Progressive Conservatives agree on—that I should not run for the Liberal leadership.” Added Chrétien: “The most difficult thing to know is when to get out of politics. Most politicians don’t know when to get out.” At the end of his speech the crowd gave Chrétien a standing ovation. For Chrétien, a staunch Trudeau loyalist and former Liberal cabinet minister who left active politics after Turner defeated him in the 1984 party leadership contest, the most difficult problem may be deciding whether— and when—to return.
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