There are enthusiastic crowds to greet Liberal leadership candidate Jean Chrétien at most of his appearances. But when the former Trudeau-era cabinet minister pushed his way through a crush of Liberals at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre early last week, his admirers’ cheers were drowned out by chants of “ABC”—Anybody But Chrétien—from supporters of a rival candidate, Montreal MP Paul Martin. The chants underscored more than simply the partisanship of a political campaign. Chrétien is the early leader among the six candidates for the Liberal crown. As a result, organizers for Martin are quietly negotiating with their counterparts in other camps in an effort to prevent Chrétien from securing an overwhelming majority of delegate support even before the Liberals’ June convention. According to senior Martin strategists, they expect supporters of rival leadership hopefuls Sheila Copps and Clifford Lincoln to combine forces with them to work against Chrétien in Ontario and Quebec in many of the tough riding-by-riding battles for delegates that begin on Feb. 15.
With the Calgary convention still five months away, none of the declared candidates would publicly acknowledge that they are ready to consider alliances. Each candidate—the others are Toronto-area MPs John Nunziata and Thomas Wappel—insisted that their campaign kickoffs had gone according to script. For their part, Chrétien supporters dismissed claims that an ABC movement can be formed behind any candidate. Said Toronto MP Sergio Marchi, a key Chrétien organizer: “The ABC talk disappeared once the other camps realized it was not going to work. The policy differences between Martin and some of the other candidates are too great for them to be able to get together.” Still, Martin’s advisers told Maclean’s last week that they are indeed working on deals with Copps’s local organizers in many key central Canadian ridings.
The purpose of the alliances: to secure for Chrétien’s rivals as many as possible of the 12 delegates that each Liberal riding association is eligible to send to Calgary. Ontario and Quebec, where the deals are being negotiated, account for 174 of the 295 ridings represented in the House of Commons. According to Martin strategists, Chrétien’s substantial lead over the other candidates could allow his supporters to win all 12 of the available delegate endorsements in many ridings. But by joining forces with other camps in those ridings where Chrétien appears to be ahead, David Herle, Martin’s national campaign director, says that he hopes to defeat many of the Chrétien slates. Said Herle: “If we do not feel that we can win a riding outright, it would be better to elect eight delegates and let Sheila have four, rather than allow Chrétien to have all 12.” Martin’s organizers have already made agreements with Copps’s supporters in “a couple of ridings” in Ontario, Herle said, adding, “You will see more as time goes on.”
Despite her advisers’ public denial that any alliances are under consideration, Copps could well benefit from such an arrangement. She has impressed many Liberals with her public performances during the early stages of the campaign, but she lacks the organizational depth to compete with the superior financing of the well-established Martin and Chrétien forces. While her main opponents have been signing up members since last summer, Copps did not even appoint her Ontario organizer, Jeffrey Smith, until last week. “It is no secret that we start from further back and in third place,” said Joseph Thornley, Copps’s communications director. “We will probably lose the early rounds of delegate selection.” But Thornley said that Copps is relying on her ability to conduct an exciting campaign to win over delegates who have already been elected to support other candidates.
Privately, however, one senior Copps organizer in Ontario confirmed that the Hamilton MP’s advisers had discussed splitting the delegate slates in certain ridings with Martin, rather than see Chrétien sweep up all the available support. Declared the Copps strategist: “My goal is to get delegates elected wherever I can. If I have to collaborate with another camp, I will do it.”
In Quebec, meanwhile, Herle said that the Martin team was hoping to forge a similar alliance with Lincoln’s forces. “But the alliances will work only in Quebec and Ontario,” he said. “In the West and Atlantic Canada, the race is between us and Chrétien.”
And in the West, at least, the race remains an unequal one, with Chrétien clearly in front. Last week, 900 students packed a University of Calgary lecture hall to hear him deliver a passionate defence of his political vision. “The tragedy of our land is we have all become more of a British Columbian, more of an Albertan, more of a Quebecer, and we forget we are all Canadians,” said Chrétien to thunderous applause. The solution, he added, was a strong central government that could speak for all Canadians.
Chrétien’s western popularity has been strengthened by his denunciation of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. He further bolstered his appeal in the region late last week by endorsing the concept of a Triple E Senate— elected and effective with equal representation from each province—a reform that many western Canadians consider essential to curbing the influence of Ontario and Quebec in national policymaking.
By contrast, observed University of Winnipeg political scientist Allen Mills, Martin, who supports Meech Lake, “has done himself dreadful damage in Western Canada.” But Martin holds other views that are likely to find a warmer reception in the West: for one, he too supports a Triple E Senate. Martin is likely to emphasize that position when he sets off on a western swing of his own this week, looking for support in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. And he moved last week to strengthen western representation on his campaign team, announcing the addition of Manitoba MP David Walker to his organization as a policy adviser.
Still, it is in Ontario and Quebec that the greatest number of delegate votes for the June convention will be decided. And it was in those provinces that Martin’s advisers plainly hoped to offset Chrétien’s early lead by joining forces with other candidates who are equally eager to see someone else emerge as the Liberals’ next leader.
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