CANADA

Testing the waters

Liberal hopefuls assess their chances

BRUCE WALLACE August 14 1989
CANADA

Testing the waters

Liberal hopefuls assess their chances

BRUCE WALLACE August 14 1989

Testing the waters

Liberal hopefuls assess their chances

Without bands, balloons or a theme song, the tour has few of the lavish trappings of a modern political leadership campaign. But, as former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Clifford Lincoln travels between meetings with local Liberals in the four Atlantic provinces this summer, his threeweek tour is a vivid reminder that, although no major candidates have stepped forward to officially declare their intentions, the race to succeed John Turner as leader of the federal Liberal party is under way. Travelling with

four aides in a 32-foot motor home and financed by $100,000 in contributions from political sympathizers, Lincoln is trying to gauge whether he could attract support from Liberals to contest the leadership. And, last week, in Corner Brook, Nfld., Lincoln, 60, said that he had been encouraged by the response of Liberal party members. “Had the trip been a complete failure, I would have to be a realist and call it quits,” he said. “But people have been extremely receptive.” Now, Lincoln organizers—mostly young Liberals from Quebec and Ontario—are mapping a route for him to meet Liberals from Ontario to the British Columbia coast.

Lincoln is little known outside his home province of Quebec—and his candidacy would assuredly be a long shot. A succession of polls has demonstrated that Jean Chrétien remains by far the most popular potential candidate. The latest one, done in May by Gallup Canada Inc., gave Chrétien 43 per cent of Canadians’ support, compared with nine per cent for Mon-

treal MP and former businessman Paul Martin Jr. But with the leadership vote still more than 10 months away, other hopefuls, from MPs Sheila Copps and Lloyd Axworthy to former Liberal cabinet ministers Francis Fox and Donald Johnston, are measuring their chances of overtaking him. Some of them said privately that Martin’s inability so far to demonstrate clearly that he has the mettle to beat Chrétien has encouraged them to consider entering the race. And Ontario Premier David Peterson, who is touted by some Liber-

als as a possible candidate—and who received eight-per-cent support in the May Gallup poll—is preoccupied with a political scandal in his government.

For his part, Chrétien has maintained his strategy of keeping a low profile. And with Parliament in recess for the summer, the dimmed political spotlight has driven most of the leadership activity underground. In some camps, such as that of Hamilton MP Copps, advisers are sketching out ways of running a campaign on a limited budget. Other potential candidates are trying to shore up perceived weaknesses. Winnipeg MP Axworthy spent two weeks in Quebec City in July trying to improve his French-language skills, while a committee of supporters tried to raise money for his run at the leadership.

Funding remains a major obstacle for many candidates. During the 1984 Liberal leadership campaign, Turner and Chrétien both spent the $1.5-million allowable limit. Now, many potential candidates will clearly find it difficult to

raise major funding. In the case of Axworthy, his identification with opposition to the CanadaU.S. Free Trade Agreement—as the Liberals’ international trade critic, he was the architect of the party’s anti-free-trade policy—will make it difficult for him to raise money from business leaders. And many donors who in the past have been generous to Liberal candidates, such as Winnipeg businessman Israel (Izzy) Asper, have so far been reluctant to underwrite any nascent leadership campaigns. As a result, part of Axworthy’s leadership strategy will be to condemn the campaign spending of Chrétien and Martin, which is expected to be heavy. But Axworthy has privately vowed that, if his campaign fails to catch fire, he will drop out of the race rather than incur extensive personal debts.

Last month, Axworthy’s supporters tried unsuccessfully to bridge their gap with the business community by seeking an endorsement from Johnston. Johnston resigned from the Liberal caucus in 1988 partly because he favored free trade while the party opposed it. But, as a representative of the Liberal party’s conservative wing, he enjoys support among business leaders, particularly in Montreal’s anglophone community. Johnston, a Montreal lawyer, rejected Axworthy’s overtures. And friends said that the former minister, who ran third behind Turner and Chrétien in the 1984 leadership race, is himself considering running again.

Meanwhile, Martin, who was elected to Parliament for the first time last November, has used the summer lull to mount a grassroots campaign across the country, speaking to groups of between 25 and 150 Liberals, mostly in private homes. Advisers acknowledge that his political career did not have a particularly promising start. They attribute many of his problems to his inexperience in dealing with the media, which in February played up his comments—contradicting the party line—that the Meech Lake constitutional accord could be altered and that free trade would not necessarily harm Canada. “After that, there was some slippage in Paul’s support,” said one Martin backer in Western Canada. “But since then, he has worked his butt off going into the rumpus rooms of the country to show people that, even if he is not perfect, he is damn good.”

Indeed, Martin has determinedly set out to build a network of supporters from the Liberal party’s increasingly powerful provincial political organizations. And his campaign advisers are slowly unveiling policies that would be in line with Martin’s theme of bringing “new ideas” to the party. Among them: a desire for the rest of Canada to match Quebec’s economic nationalism, under which public capital is used to develop homegrown companies.

Still, the Martin and Chrétien camps have both privately expressed concern at the emergence of a third Quebec-based candidate. And, last week, associates said that Fox, a Montreal communications lawyer and president of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party, was reconsidering his earlier decision

not to seek the leadership. Until last month, Fox was hoping that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would appoint him chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, a post that on June 29 went to Ottawa Citizen editor Keith Spicer. But Fox’s most difficult political obstacle may be the lingering memories of his resignation from Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet in 1978, when he confessed to signing another man’s name to a hospital admitting form, enabling a friend to have an abortion.

Meanwhile, despite rumblings of discontent from some activists who are eager to get the

campaign under way, Chrétien followed the advice of his closest advisers and took a month off to rest, read and play golf on the course he owns in Grand Mère, Que. “It is difficult to sustain excitement in a yearlong race,” said one Chrétien confidant. “You will not see any major speeches from Jean in the next few months. But by the fall he will be out on the trail meeting Liberals and turning up on the local news.” With his gaping lead in the polls, Chrétien was in a position to turn a leaderhip race into a waiting game.

BRUCE WALLACE