AFTER YEARS OF WAITING, JEAN CHRETIEN IS POISED TO RESUME HIS QUEST FOR POLITICAL POWER
READY TO RUN
AFTER YEARS OF WAITING, JEAN CHRETIEN IS POISED TO RESUME HIS QUEST FOR POLITICAL POWER
On the day of his resignation from the House of Commons in February, 1986, Jean Chrétien told a friend that he was leaving politics because, after 23 years in Ottawa, he had almost run out of challenges. Under former Liberal prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, the self-styled “little guy” from Shawinigan, Que., had occupied eight cabinet positions, including the senior portfolios of finance, justice and external affairs. Declared Chrétien: “What job is there left for me to do—minister of national revenue?” In reality, Chrétien’s sights remained firmly fixed on the one job that had eluded his grasp: that of prime minister. More than three years later, Chrétien—now a 55-year-old corporate lawyer—bides his time in a sparsely furnished comer office only two blocks from Parliament Hill, waiting impatiently for the moment when he will resume publicly the quest for political power that has consumed almost his entire adult life.
Chrétien’s years of waiting may soon be over. On Saturday, the national executive of the Liberal party announced that it would hold a leadership convention in Calgary next year from June 22 to 24. The convention will choose a successor to John Turner, who defeated Chrétien for the leadership in 1984 before twice failing to win a general election. The outcome of Saturday’s meeting represented a setback for Chrétien, whose supporters had lobbied heavily for a leadership convention in the fall. The reason: surveys show that the scrappy, unapologetic populist is now far and away the favorite among those who appear likely to enter the leadership race. Still, Chrétien’s advisers insisted that their candidate’s chances would not be hurt by the executive’s decision. And that point of view gained support from Winnipeg-based pollster Angus Reid. “For the past two years, Chrétien has consistently been the most popular Liberal in the country,” said Reid. “Not only is he maintaining his lead, he seems to be gaining momentum.”
The question now is whether Chrétien can hang on to his front-runner status throughout the course of a yearlong leadership campaign, particularly if Ontario Premier David Peterson enters the race (page 14). As in 1984, many grassroots Liberals say that they like and admire Chrétien but doubt whether he has the intellectual depth and administrative skills to be prime minister. His hostility to the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society,” may hurt his
chances among some Quebec Liberals who are wary of Chrétien’s strong federalist views (page 12). At the same time, in spite of his impressive record of public service, Chrétien is also hurt by his years of experience in government. His opponents within the party have tried to disparage him as “yesterday’s man,” suggesting that he remains committed to the interventionist economic policies of the Trudeau era. “The days when governments could spend freely and ignore the deficit are long gone,” declared Kilby Gibson, 42, a Vancouver businesswoman and member of the National Women’s Liberal Commission. Gibson said that she has not decided who she will support for the leadership. But she added: “I think it is critical
that we elect someone who has a vision of Canada for the 1990s and beyond. If all Mr. Chrétien wants to do is to relive past glories, he can forget it.”
Chrétien himself is keenly aware of his own shortcomings as a candidate. Partly in an effort to avoid errors, he has tried to maintain a low profile and has declined to give interviews until the leadership race is formally under way. As well, his advisers say that he is determined to wage a different kind of campaign than he did in 1984, when he appealed to party loyalty and tradition by casting himself as the guardian of the Trudeau legacy. As the acknowledged underdog, the personable and irrepressible Chrétien rapidly became the sentimental favorite among delegates. But Chrétien’s impassioned speeches and patriotic pleas for national unity could not overcome his main weakness: the widespread perception that he has no ideas of his own. “We have been talking to Jean about his image problem, and I think he is aware that some people view him as superficial,” said Mitchell Sharp, a former Liberal finance minister who now works with Chrétien in the Ottawa offices of Lang, Michener, a Bay Street law firm. “I think we are going to see emerging in this leadership race a somewhat different Jean Chrétien than in the past. He does not have to change his style, he has to change the content.”
To prepare for the race, Chrétien’s advisers have organized a series of closed-door policy briefings for him in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto on subjects as diverse as international trade, the environment, and science and technology. Said Ottawa lawyer Edward Goldenberg, Chrétien’s longtime adviser: “Rather than spending all of our time building a campaign organization, we are concentrating on ensuring that he is conversant with the major issues of the day.” Sharp, who acted as chairman during a briefing for Chrétien in Ottawa last month on foreign affairs and defence, said that the sessions generally last four hours and involve five or six experts. In return for their help, Chrétien’s advisers promise participants that their names will not be made public. “We are looking for the foremost authorities in each field, regardless of their political affiliation,” Sharp said. “I tell people that we are not necessarily asking them to support Chrétien. We just think he needs a bit more
education so that he gains some confidence in these fields. Anyway, who could turn down an opportunity to discuss public policy with a man who could be prime minister in a few years?” In another departure from his 1984 campaign style, Chrétien hopes to convince Liberals that he is a politician with ideas for the future rather than the defender of past policies. Said Edward Lumley, a former Liberal cabinet minister who is now a director of Bums Fry Ltd., a Toronto brokerage firm: “Chrétien had a tough time in 1984 because he felt that he should not criticize policies that were approved when he was in cabinet. Things will be much easier for him this time because he will be running as an outsider.”
Chrétien’s advisers are particularly sensitive about the charge that Chrétien represents small-1 liberal economic policies that are un-
suited to a time of increased global competitiveness and runaway federal deficits. As a result, they go out of their way to insist that the former finance minister is a responsible administrator who understands the importance of fiscal restraint and is sympathetic to the needs of the business community. “Jean is not an interventionist,” Sharp said. “He knows that this is not a time for grand new spending programs, that the debt is crucial and that it has to be controlled.”
In fact, Chrétien can point to his record as Treasury Board president, from 1974 to 1976, as evidence that he has the capacity to make unpopular decisions. At the time, Chrétien earned the nickname “Dr. No” by slashing more than $1 billion from federal spending. Later, in spite of his public image as a leftleaning minister, Chrétien defended the inter-
ests of business and encouraged foreign investment on the grounds that it would create jobs. “Jean used to remind people that governments do not create wealth,” recalled a former deputy minister who worked closely with Chrétien during his years in cabinet.
“He was often impatient with the bureaucracy because he thought it stood in the way of individual enterprise.”
At the same time, Chrétien will have to defend himself against charges that he failed to demonstrate sufficient loyalty during Turner’s term as leader. “He vacated the ship when it was sinking,” said Constance Ings, a member of the party’s national executive who lives in Montague,
P.E.I. Ings, an uncommitted delegate, said that she voted for Chrétien at the 1984 leadership convention but will probably not do so again. “For me, the last straw was when Chrétien refused to come on board during last year’s election campaign. He should have put aside his differences with the leader for the good of the party.”
Among other Liberals, however, Chrétien’s reputation as a streetsmart populist far outweighs any concerns about his loyalty to Turner. “He comes across as an ordinary guy who has done well,” said Delphine Collins, a social worker from Estevan, Sask., who sits on the national executive.
Collins said that she supported Turner in 1984 but is now “leaning toward” Chrétien. “He is someone people identify with because he fights for the little guy.” For her part, former party president Iona Campagnolo, who has said that she would support Montreal MP Paul Martin Jr. for the leadership, added
that Chrétien remains popular in part because for years he has travelled the country to raise money and deliver speeches on behalf of other Liberals. Said Campagnolo: “When I first ran for Parliament in 1974, Chrétien was the only
minister in the government who travelled to my riding in northern British Columbia. People remember that Jean always worked hard in the field when he was needed.”
Chrétien will likely reap the benefits of that work when the leadership race officially gets under way. Underscoring his enduring popularity, a Gallup poll conducted last month suggested that 43 per cent of Canadians—and 51 per cent of Quebecers—supported Chrétien. And among those who declared themselves to be Liberal party supporters, 54 per cent said that they would support a leadership bid by Chrétien, well ahead of the next most popular choice, David Peterson, who had 11 per cent of the support.
For Chrétien, the current situation is in sharp contrast to the underdog position he occupied throughout the 1984 leadership campaign. At the time, the then-energy minister told Maclean’s that he preferred to be in second place, adding, “I don’t want to be in first right now—I’d rather have Turner ahead so that he can cut the wind for me.” This time, it is Chrétien who holds a commanding lead. As such, he will likely be a favorite target for attacks from other leadership contenders—and, his advisers suggest, from the media. “Politicians tend to become less and less popular the more people see of them,” Sharp said. “I suppose Jean could suffer the same fate if he becomes overexposed.” But that is a problem that Chrétien’s rivals for the leadership can only envy.
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