THE LONELY ROAD HOME
JEAN CHRETIEN FACES THE VOTERS IN BEAUSEJOUR AND A DECLINE IN HIS FORTUNES
The unpretentious setting was tailor-made for a candidate who takes pride in speaking “straight from the heart.” The basement meeting room of a school near the village of Barachois on New Brunswick’s French-speaking Acadian coast was draped last week in Christmas decorations and packed with voters. As if on cue, Jean Chrétien, well into his whirlwind campaign to win a Dec. 10 federal by election in the riding of Beauséjour, undid his double-breasted navy blazer and let loose with a vintage partisan performance. He attacked the reviled GST,
saying, “I want to kill it—nothing less.” With equal gusto, he savaged Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s stewardship of the nation. “Nobody speaks for Canada in this country,” he thundered. His concluding salvo amounted to a prayer for divine intervention: “I just hope God is a Liberal, too.” The charged appeal found an attentive listener in Armand Bannister, a lottery-ticket distributor from the nearby town of Shediac. Said Bannister afterwards: “I was afraid he was like John Turner—that he had lost some of his magic. But he’s back in form.” The relaxed and confident manner that Chrétien displayed on the New Brunswick
campaign trail, however, was in sharp contrast to his often awkward performances in Ottawa since winning the Liberal party leadership in June. In fact, as he wrestles with a host of problems that beset the once dominant party, Chrétien has shown only brief flashes of the earthy and informal style that long placed him among the country’s most popular politicians. In most appearances, Chrétien has lately seemed colorless and one-dimensional. And despite the flashes of his former self that emerge infrequently when he throws away his prepared text, some Liberals accuse Chrétien’s advisers of stripping the 56-year-old leader of the passionate intensity that was his trademark for more than two decades.
Slipping: At the same time, polls indicate that his party’s hold on the Canadian imagination is slipping. Popular support for the Liberals has slumped to 30 per cent from almost 50 per cent when he seized the leadership. Although he has launched the long process of restoring vigor and a sense of direction to a listless party, his critics say that he has moved too cautiously to distance the Liberals from Mulroney’s Conservatives and their policies. In the most sympathetic view, said Robert Jackson, a political scientist at Ottawa’s Carle ton University who was
a senior policy adviser to Turner, “the Liberals are waiting before they bring out a policy agenda.” But he added, “If they think they can get away without one, they are wrong.” Hostility towards Chrétien in Quebec, meanwhile, has badly undermined his strategy of becoming the most powerful federal voice speaking out for national unity.
Among Liberal loyalists, the grumbling has so far been restrained—although some party members who supported Paul Martin’s bid for the leadership continue to be bitter over their loss at the June 23 convention (page 21). Still, among Chrétien’s 78 MPs, dissent is silenced by the fear of repeating the disasters that befell his predecessor, Turner, who was the target of backbench revolts. But some party activists express concern that Chrétien’s subdued manner and slow start have already taken their toll. The Liberal’s chief financial officer, Michael Robinson, who was Paul Martin’s campaign manager, argues that Chrétien’s refusal to take a stand in the final days of the Meech Lake debate undermined his reputation as a straight shooter. Said Robinson: “The strength of Jean Chrétien was that people saw him as a cut above a politician. Now, he is in danger of becoming just another politician.”
In fact, Chrétien is in part trying to play down the very image that made him popular to begin with. Throughout a 23-year career in federal politics that included eight cabinet positions, Chrétien displayed a quixotic blend of vulnerability and toughness, earning a reputa-
tion as a passionate scrapper who spoke with conviction. If he carried notes into meetings on critical issues, they were reduced to a single page. But when critics of his leadership bid accused him of being a policy lightweight, a small cadre of advisers began concentrating on casting Chrétien in a more substantive light. First, they intensified his briefings on selected issues in an attempt to prevent him from making damaging mistakes. Their long-term strategy, in the expectation that Chrétien would win the leadership, was that a federal election was at least two years away—allowing Chrétien plenty of time to establish his policy credentials at his own pace. Said Edward Goldenberg, Chrétien’s principal secretary: “This is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.”
But before that gradual shift in emphasis could be put into effect, Chrétien stumbled. Chief among his problems was his perceived flip-flop over the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Last June, when final negotiations were taking place in an attempt to rescue the deal, Chrétien, a longtime opponent of the accord, worked privately to salvage a revised agreement—but hedged publicly on whether he supported or opposed an amended deal. And when the accord failed, the Quebec media vilified Chrétien as one of the architects of its demise.
Uncertainty: After winning his party’s leadership, Chrétien made few public appearances—fuelling further uncertainty about his convictions. Personal problems may have partially contributed to his withdrawal from the public stage. Insiders say that he was, and remains, deeply troubled over the legal difficulties of his adopted son, Michel, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault in Montreal. But by remaining silent for much of the summer, Chrétien also missed opportunities to enhance his image. He was absent during most of the standoff between Mohawk Indians and authorities in Quebec. And when public attention turned in September to the government’s widely disliked GST legislation, Chrétien refused to say whether he would abolish the tax if he were elected.
Finally, on Oct. 28, Chrétien said that he would do so. But a survey published on Nov. 27 by Toronto-based Environics Research Group found that fully 64 per cent of those polled said that they did not believe him. More telling, however, was that over half of those who described themselves as Liberal supporters told the polling company that they did not believe their own leader. Said Environics vicepresident Donna Dasko: “There is a much higher degree of cynicism about the Liberals, despite the fight by Liberal senators against the GST. That should be a source of concern.”
Chrétien’s declaration on the GST was one of a number of policy announcements that he has made in recent months—in keeping with his advisers’ long-term plan for altering his image. But in spite of that, Chrétien’s support in public opinion polls—once his strongest asset—has continued to erode. Last May, just before his June leadership win, an Angus Reid poll indicated that 51 per cent of Canadians had high
expectations of Chrétien as Liberal leader. Since then, his image has suffered. According to an Angus Reid/Southam News poll released on Nov. 13, 49 per cent of respondents disapproved of Chrétien’s performance—while only one in three approved.
For his part, Chrétien told Maclean ’s that some of his recent speeches have been drier than the old, firebrand style of oratory that he is known for. But he blames the difference on the fact that he has been speaking about issues
—rather than appealing to partisan emotions. Said Chrétien: “This fall, I made seven or eight speeches on policies. I thought it was important to put it in writing. Normally, when I’m campaigning, I never have any notes. But when you’re delivering a policy paper, you need notes.” His aides, meanwhile, have at Chrétien’s request added a TelePrompTer to his podium props in an attempt to help free Chrétien from the constraint of written texts. Still, one aide noted wryly: “Canadians say they want substance. Give them substance and they ask, ‘Where’s the entertainment?’ ”
Criticism: But the problems Chrétien faces run much deeper than criticism over his speaking style. The Liberal party that Chrétien took over in June bears little resemblance to the wealthy and powerful electoral machine that he grew familiar with during the party’s years in power. For one thing, it is $4 million in debt— and has little hope of retiring that figure in the near future. Party officials say that they will be able to repay only $300,000 by the end of the year.
In fact, after six years out of power, the Liberals are still having trouble adjusting to the harsh realities of opposition. Said Liberal party president and former cabinet minister Donald Johnston: “The party suffers from years in government when popular fund-raising was not necessary. We never learned how to do it.” Now, the party executive has embarked on a two-year plan to reorganize Liberal fund-raising and wean the party from its reliance on corporate donations. So far, they have had only
mixed success. A gala $500-a-ticket event in Toronto on Nov. 21 demonstrated the depth of the party’s difficulties. One corporate supporter refused to attend unless given free tickets; another cancelled a $5,000 cheque after disagreeing with Chrétien’s office over who would introduce the leader after dinner. In the end, organizers gave away hundreds of tickets— more than 500, according to one estimate—to fill the room’s 1,800 seats. On the surface, Chrétien’s blistering speech seemed to cap a superbly successful affair. But on the bottom line, one organizer conceded, the event barely broke even.
Still, Chrétien’s most critical challenge remains: rebuilding the party in Quebec. According to the Nov. 13 Angus Reid/Southam poll, his worst showing is in his own province, where 73 per cent of respondents disapproved of his
actions as leader. Chrétien’s star has faded even in his home town of Shawinigan (page 24). In response, Chrétien has submitted a brief and requested permission to address Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau constitutional commission— the first federal leader to do so. He is clearly gambling that his appearance, scheduled for Dec. 19, will draw Quebecers’ attention to his vision of reformed federalism.
Laying the groundwork for that appearance, Chrétien announced at a fund-raising brunch in Montreal on Oct. 28 that the political status quo was no longer acceptable. Said former cabinet minister Francis Fox, president of the Quebec wing of the Liberal party: “The challenge is to show Quebecers that federalism can indeed evolve. Chrétien addressed that squarely. The question now is, how do you translate those general, progressive sentiments into concrete proposals?”
In fact, the Liberals are struggling to redirect their policy on several fronts. Chrétien has signalled his intent to trim the party’s platform—which under Turner carried no fewer than 40 costly commitments—to a half-dozen more focused themes, such as trade and national unity, by 1992. The approach, said Toronto
MP Sergio Marchi, one of the party’s chief policy planners, “is to crystallize a vision rather than playing everything to everybody.”
But that approach carries many dangers. For one thing, the Liberal party remains torn over such fundamental issues as how to deal with Quebec and what stance to take towards the Mexican-American free trade talks. Said Thomas Axworthy, former principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau: “It is hard to find anything except the motherhood issues that they agree upon. A strong minority is pulling away from the old, unifying values of a strong, central government.”
Divisions: In an effort to bridge those divisions in his ranks, Chrétien has turned the development of party policy over to a tight circle of advisers and caucus leaders. He has created two special task forces, one to generate an international trade strategy and another to find an alternative to the GST. He has also set in motion plans for a national party policy conference in the spring of 1992. Said Chrétien: “We will not allow our adversaries to force us to state our positions before we are good and ready.”
But at least some of Chrétien’s adversaries
may be within the Liberal party fold. Last September, before the Nov. 1 appointment of the federal Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, a number of prominent Liberals met to discuss sponsoring their own citizens’ forum on national unity. But according to several of those involved, the group informed neither Chrétien nor his office of their plans. Shrugged one participant: “We didn’t think they’d go for it because it wasn’t their idea.” At the other extreme, Chrétien’s own aides have alienated some Liberals by attempting to mount contrived shows of party unity. In one instance, they asked Chrétien’s former leadership rivals to each choose two supporters to sit with the leader at a fund-raising dinner in Ottawa on Nov. 6—an exercise greeted with exasperation by some Liberals.
In fact, after five months on the job, the small
group of Chrétien loyalists that runs the opposition leader’s office has attracted much of the criticism being levelled at the leader by party members. The focus of discontent is the 42year-old Goldenberg, a Chrétien aide at various times since 1975 and, to some, the Liberal leader’s alter ego. The Montreal-born lawyer
is known to be impatient with short-term tactics and fiercely protective of the man whose campaign he guided for the leadership. That combination has angered some Liberals, who blame Goldenberg for convincing Chrétien to abandon his popular unscripted speaking style. Former Liberal MP Gary McCauley, now a newspaper columnist in New Brunswick, was
the first disaffected loyalist to draw a knife. Writing in the Moncton Times-Transcript on Oct. 27, McCauley denounced Goldenberg as “a conniving, manipulative, unprincipled operative.” For his part, Chrétien denies that Goldenberg’s influence is excessive. Said the leader to Maclean ’s: “Nobody tells me what to do.” Indeed, according to Liberal MPs, Chrétien rules the weekly Wednesday morning caucus meetings—as well as the daily tactics meetings that he frequently attends—with an iron fist and a very decided point of view. The caucus that was frequently unruly under John Turner is now under strict orders to submerge regional interests in favor of a co-ordinated attack on the Muironey government during the daily Question Period. Said Marchi: “He will listen and then, using his judgment, will say
we are going this way, and that’s it.”
But Chrétien’s stubbornness has also created friction. On one occasion in early November, he refused to link the Liberal slide in the polls to his ambiguous stance on the GST. According to witnesses, as the leader was returning to his seat, Newfoundland MP Brian Tobin, normally a staunch Chrétien loyalist, leaped to his feet and shouted angrily at Chrétien’s retreating back: “You are going to lose the seat of every person in this room.” Tobin denies that an altercation between him and Chrétien took place.
Reverse: Chrétien’s supporters remain convinced that he can reverse his low standing in the polls—if he can defeat his chief rival in Beauséjour, the NDP’s Guy Cormier (page 26). “Those who count Chrétien out are making a huge mistake,” said Tobin. “He flourishes in an adversarial environment. Right now, he is disengaged. He’s not in the driver’s seat. When he’s in Parliament, his blood will begin to boil.” Before that happens, however, Chrétien must win next week’s byelection in the predominantly French-speaking flatlands of eastern New Brunswick. Meanwhile, he is philosophical about the critics who try to undermine his leadership from inside, as well as outside, his party. “I have had good days and bad days all my career,” he said. “I have always taken it as it comes. Now I am fighting for what I believe in.” It even seemed possible that Chrétien has felt suffocated by the need for caution as he attempts to bind up his party’s wounds and banish its old ghosts. “It is like old times,” he said with evident pleasure last week, as he stepped onto the familiar terrain of the political stage that he knows—and performs on—best.
E. KAYE FULTON