CANADA

The leadership issue

Splits linger inside the Liberal party

BRUCE WALLACE May 1 1989
CANADA

The leadership issue

Splits linger inside the Liberal party

BRUCE WALLACE May 1 1989

The leadership issue

Splits linger inside the Liberal party

From the corridors of a Quebec retreat to the House of Commons, Liberal MP James Peterson spent last week lobbying fellow Liberals. His aim: to persuade his colleagues to cancel a scheduled vote on John Turner’s leadership this fall and to convince Turner to remain for at least another year. “We have to get rid of the internecine warfare and leader-bashing, which characterized the last four years,” said Peterson, MPfor Toronto

Willowdale and brother of Ontario Premier David Peterson. But Peterson’s plea likely came too late. Some Liberals declared that the proposal was actually a thinly veiled attempt to slow Jean Chrétien’s ascendancy as Turner’s heir apparent. And friends said that the beleaguered Liberal leader, who lost the last two federal elections to Brian Mulroney’s Conservative party, is eager to announce his return to private life—perhaps as early as this week.

But the bitter disagreements over Liberal policy, which marked Turner’s five years at the helm, are likely to survive his departure. The party remains deeply split over issues, from how to respond to the Tory government’s determination to reduce the deficit to their own particular internal demon—the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Despite its divisiveness, many Liberals were determined to make Meech Lake dominant in the selection of Turner’s successor. And unhappiness over the limited choice of leadership hopefuls has

touched off a search for new faces, including a grassroots movement among young Quebec Liberals to pressure former Quebec provincial environment minister Clifford Lincoln into running. Said Patrick Johnston, Turner’s former social policy adviser who now works for David Peterson: “It does not help us at this crucial point in time to have the leadership in limbo.”

But most Liberals concede that Chrétien—

who has the highest profile among the party’s rank and file—would have a hammerlock on the leadership if the party held a convention in the next year. Feeling secure in their frontrunner status, the Chrétien forces—most notably Senator Pietro Rizzuto in Quebec—have been wooing MPs, senators and party members. Meanwhile, Liberals hoping to delay a leadership campaign are hampered by the fact that Turner soon must reveal whether he will fight to renew his leadership at the party’s October convention in Calgary. Delegate selection to the convention begins on May 1 and if Turner has not announced his intention to resign by then, he will suffer the embarrassment of watching the election of delegates opposed to his leadership. Said one Turner friend: “Turner has no way of winning a leadership review and he knows it. He will be 60 years old in June and he needs to get back to the private sector to earn some money.”

Still, some MPs were trying to encourage

Turner to stay on, at least until the fate of the Meech Lake constitutional accord is determined. The governments of Manitoba and New Brunswick have yet to ratify the accord and must do so by June, 1990, or else it will die. The anti-Meech forces may also have an ally in Newfoundland’s Liberal premier-elect Clyde Wells, who has criticized the accord’s “distinct society” clause, which confers special status on Quebec. Wells has also charged that the Meech agreement would effectively block Senate reform because all 10 provinces would have to approve major changes to the upper chamber. Said Quebec Liberal MP Gilles Rocheleau: “I hope that Turner will stay for now to avoid having the tensions over Meech Lake, which lie at the heart of this party, tear us in two.”

But Turner’s controversial 1987 decision to support the Meech Lake accord continues to provoke passionate debate among party members. “We are drowning in Meech Lake,” said Johnston, one of about 250 Liberals who attended a gathering of the Grindstone Group, which meets periodically to informally review party policy, at Montebello, Que., in midApril. “Hearing the arguments on both sides of Meech Lake,” Johnston added, “was like seeing a play for the fifth time.” In fact, the Liberals are also divided on other issues, from how to respond to the Tories’ decision to upgrade Canada’s relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization to whether social benefits should be taxed back from wealthier Canadians.

But for those Liberals who regard Meech Lake—with its transfer of some federal powers to the provinces—as a betrayal of the party’s traditional commitment to a strong central government, the Constitution is the paramount issue confronting the party. Said Donald Johnston, a former Liberal cabinet minister who continues his crusade against the accord: “The powers given to the provinces are an obstacle to any new national programs.” And Johnston argued that many Liberals privately want the accord to fail but wish to avoid having the federal party take the blame. Johnston said that “everyone whispers” that New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna will kill Meech, “but my own view is that we should not allow people who aspire to national leadership to skate away from such a fundamental issue.” But for aspirants to the Liberal leadership, any rejection of Meech Lake risks alienating Quebec Liberals, most of whom cherish the distinct society provision. The Meech Lake dilemma has already thrown a wrench into the campaign machinery of one leadership hopeful: Montreal MP Paul Martin Jr. Martin, who was elected in the riding of LaSalle-Emard with the

blessing of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, has supported the accord. But at a party caucus meeting in St. John’s, Nfld., in February, Martin called for new negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces to break the logjam over ratification of Meech Lake. The suggestion earned Martin a swift rebuke from Turner, who said that Liberal policy on Meech Lake was closed. With that, Martin surrendered one advantage over Chrétien: his proclaimed loyalty to Turner. Said Dennis Dawson, a former Liberal MP and a key Martin supporter in Quebec: “When you are perceived as being disloyal to the leader, it causes problems.”

Martin’s perceived slide from the high expectations that greeted his entry into politics has provoked concern and frustration in his camp.

Said James Anderson, an Ottawa consultant who was one of the organizers of the Grindstone gathering: “The party seemed to be looking for someone to be jubilant about. People wanted to see some spark from Martin and did not get ii, so there was a certain level of disappointment.” Admitted Dawson:

“There is a strong need inside the Liberal party for a star candidate.”

For now, Chrétien is unquestionably the most popular and charismatic of the likely contenders. But his critics charge that he has failed to develop a slate of new ideas that could carry the party into the 1990s. For their part, the activists behind Chrétien openly advocate a return to the party’s traditional values. Said Edward Goldenberg, an Ottawa lawyer who is one of Chrétien’s key organizers: “Let’s face it—there are not a lot of new ideas out there, and some old ideas are still pretty good. You will not hear a lot of pie-in-the-sky notions from Jean.”

But unhappiness with Chrétien and Martin has sent Liberals scrambling to search for new blood. Many young Quebec Liberals have been trying to stir up support for Lincoln, an eloquent orator who built a devoted core of followers during his term as Bourassa’s environment minister. Lincoln is best-known outside Quebec for resigning from Bourassa’s cabinet last December over the premier’s controversial decision to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to ban languages other than

French from outdoor commercial signs.

Although Bourassa continues to try to woo Lincoln back into the cabinet, many provincial Liberals said privately that they would shift their support from Martin to Lincoln if the 60year-old former insurance executive enters the race for the federal leadership. But not all Liberals were taking Lincoln’s candidacy seri-

ously. He is not even a member of the federal party and, said one prominent Toronto Liberal: “It is bizarre that Lincoln can come from nowhere to be suddenly mentioned as a candidate. It shows how desperate the party is.”

But the politics of leadership is unlikely to obscure the deeper battle for the soul of the Liberal party. “The overwhelming sense in the party is that the time for coherence and discipline on policy is 3% £ years from now, when we are £ close to the next election,” g said Michael Robinson, a ^ Martin supporter and chief § financial officer of the party. ° “In the meantime, if we have to sacrifice discipline in order to review what we stand for, that is not too much of a price to pay.” With the veneer of unity peeling away, the once-grand Liberal party appears ready to embark on the fight of its life.

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa