COVER

THE ‘LITTLE GUY’ TO BEAT

JEAN CHRETIEN RETURNS FOR HIS SECOND RUN AT THE LIBERAL LEADERSHIP

ROSS LAVER February 5 1990
COVER

THE ‘LITTLE GUY’ TO BEAT

JEAN CHRETIEN RETURNS FOR HIS SECOND RUN AT THE LIBERAL LEADERSHIP

ROSS LAVER February 5 1990

The contrast in speaking styles was both deliberate and unmistakable. Standing stiffly at a podium in Ottawa’s Château Laurier Hotel last week, Jean Chrétien delivered an uncharacteristically restrained speech kicking off his campaign for the federal Liberal leadership. Although the announcement had been planned for months, the normally spontaneous Chrétien stuck to his text and offered none of his trademark wisecracking ad libs. But a day later, Chrétien embarked on his first official campaign foray to Quebec—a crucial appearance designed by Chrétien organizers to counter suggestions that his opposition to the proposed Meech Lake constitutional amendment has cost him support in his home province. And as he bounded onto the stage in the ballroom of Montreal’s Sheraton Centre Hotel, Chrétien’s instincts as a scrappy political street fighter took over. “I have fought all my life for equality,” he declared in a passionate, 45-minute speech that was punctuated by loud cheers from about 2,000 supporters.

Charm: With his impressive return to the political arena last week, Chrétien instantly overshadowed his rivals in the hotly contested race to succeed party leader John Turner. Four years after abandoning politics in the wake of a bitter dispute with Turner over control of the Liberal party’s Quebec wing, Chrétien, 56, demonstrated that he has lost none of his celebrated charm and charisma—indeed, polls show that he remains one of the country’s most popular and recognized political figures. Taking advantage of the current constitutional deadlock over Meech Lake, the self-styled “little guy” from Shawinigan, Que., also staked out his position as an advocate of strong central government and as a proud federalist who will fight to preserve the rights of linguistic minorities. “We need leaders who say the same thing in all parts of the country, in both official languages,” he declared.

Although Chrétien did not mention any of the other leadership contenders by name, his remarks posed a clear challenge to the man widely viewed as his principal rival for the Liberal crown: Montreal MP Paul Martin Jr. A relative newcomer to politics, Martin has courted Quebec support by calling for ratification of the Meech Lake constitutional accord—which would declare that province a “distinct society” within Canada and transfer some federal powers to the provinces. Martin’s stance is consistent with the position adopted by Turner. But outside Quebec, Martin’s strategy involves considerable risks. Many die-hard party supporters view any expression of support for Meech Lake as a betrayal of their party’s traditional commitment to federalism. “Liberals have always loved strong central authority,” said Martin Goldfarb, the party’s veteran pollster. “In my opinion, the advocates of Meech Lake are out of step with the value system of this party—and this country.”

Privately, Martin’s supporters acknowledged that Chrétien had staged an almost flawless return to politics. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” said one adviser to the Montreal MP. “Chrétien had a great launch.” But Martin’s backers insisted that the race for the leadership will be won or lost in Quebec—which will send about 1,200 of the 5,200 delegates who are expected to attend the Liberals’ late June leadership convention in Calgary—and that only Martin is capable of generating widespread support in that province. “We have five months left to show that Paul is the candidate who can best represent the aspirations of modern Quebec,” the strategist said. “Once we do that, delegates in English Canada will realize that he is the one who should lead the party.”

At the same time, Martin appeared to be trying to shift the focus of the campaign to other issues, including economic policy and the environment. In a speech to law students at Dalhousie University in Halifax last week, the millionaire businessman called on his fellow Liberals to adopt policies that would encourage the growth of large, internationally competitive companies. “I know that some people are not comfortable with the idea of large corporations,” he added. “But if we don’t take charge of our own future, others will take charge of it for us.”

Wealth: Along with Chrétien, two other candidates also jumped into the race last week—in time to take part in a leadership forum in Toronto over the weekend. John Nunziata, 35, a second-term MP from the heavily ethnic suburban Toronto riding of York South-Weston, said that he would campaign against Meech Lake and in favor of increased immigration. Nunziata also attacked the party for setting the spending limit for leadership candidates at $1.7 million (page 30). That limit, he declared, had “rigged the campaign to favor wealthy Canadians.” And Nunziata promised that his own campaign would cost no more than $750,000.

Former Quebec environment minister Clifford Lincoln also announced his candidacy in Montreal. Lincoln told reporters he wanted “to project a quality of life that will make Canada a more environmentally conscious society, a more just and equitable society, and to give back to the people of this country clean and honest government.” The other declared candidates are Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, 37, the first woman to run for the federal Liberal leadership, and rookie Toronto-area MP Thomas Wappel, 39, who, like Nunziata, is an outspoken opponent of abortion (page 28).

But last week clearly belonged to Chrétien. Relaxed and loquacious following his successful Montreal rally, he told Maclean ’s that his years in the private sector—he helped open the Ottawa office of Lang, Michener, a Bay Street law firm, and has worked as an adviser to Torontobased investment company Gordon Capital Corp.—had given him time to recover from the stress and strains of 23 years in the House of Commons, 16 of them as a cabinet minister. “I needed a physical rest,” Chrétien said. “Today, I am relaxed and comfortable. I have matured and I have gained confidence.”

In addition, Chrétien is in much better shape financially: estimates of his annual income from his business ventures range upward from $300,000, compared with the $73,000 he earned as an opposition MP in his last full year in the Commons. “It is a big sacrifice,” said Chrétien of his return to politics. “But nobody is forcing me to do it. I am very worried about the way things are going in Canada. We are losing our international personality. We are looking like an adjunct of America.”

Afraid: Repeatedly last week, Chrétien dismissed suggestions that his opposition to the Meech Lake accord—and, in particular, his rejection of special constitutional status for Quebec—would harm his chances in that province. Indeed, he insisted that his relationship with Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, a vocal supporter of the pact, remains “personally cordial” despite their obvious philosophical differences. Declared Chrétien: “If I call him, he will talk to me in five minutes.” Added the candidate: “He is afraid of me, probably.” Chrétien quickly retracted that remark, perhaps worrying himself about its potential to antagonize the Quebec premier. “Not ‘afraid,’ ” Chrétien elaborated. “I read that he [Bourassa] thinks that we will go back to the Trudeau years, fighting all the time. That is not true.”

In fact, Chrétien has worked hard to attract support from Quebec Liberals who have publicly supported Meech Lake. Serge Paquette, who served as a policy adviser to Turner when the outgoing Liberal leader decided to endorse the controversial accord, is now Chrétien’s tour organizer in Quebec. Another pro-Meech supporter of Chrétien is Paul Vezina, a prominent Quebec City lawyer and a defeated federal Liberal candidate in the 1988 general election. Said Vezina, who introduced Chrétien at last week’s Montreal rally: “I always said that the deal should have been adopted. But constitutional debates will always be with us. We will still continue to live if the deal fails.”

And in another formidable demonstration of campaign muscle, Chrétien’s forces announced last week that they have the support of 31 of the 82 Liberal MPs and 24 senators (Martin’s camp, by contrast, claims the support of only about a dozen MPs and senators). That support appeared to reward Chrétien’s assiduous courting of parliamentarians in the weeks before his campaign launch. In preparation for his candidacy, Chrétien held a series of private dinners with groups of about a dozen MPs at a time at Juliano’s Trento Grill, a discreet Italian restaurant near Parliament Hill. Montreal MP David Berger, for one, said that he attended one of the dinners because he was curious about Chrétien’s constitutional position. “At the time, I did not trust Chrétien to follow his instincts,” Berger told Maclean’s. “I knew what he was saying privately, but I was not sure where he stood publicly.” In the end, it was not until Berger heard the candidate’s unequivocal denunciation of the accord in a speech to University of Ottawa law students on Jan. 16 that he joined the Chrétien team.

Chrétien’s main asset, however, remains his enduring popularity among Canadians—an appeal based largely on his blunt, earthy style and his self-deprecating sense of humor. The 18th of 19 children—only nine survived infancy—born to Marie Boisvert-Chrétien and her husband, Wellie, the future politician grew up in a runu down section of Shawinigan. By the age of 13, following the example of his father and paternal grandfather, he had joined the Liberals, handing out pamphlets at meetings and arguing for the party at the local poolroom.

In 1957, nearing the end of his law studies at Laval University in Quebec City, Chrétien married his high-school sweetheart, Aline Chaîné. The couple has three children, including an adopted Indian son from Inuvik, N.W.T., and four grandchildren—the youngest of whom was born last week, six hours after Chrétien officially entered the leadership race.

Folksy: Throughout his career as an MP—he won his first federal election in 1963, when he was only 29—Chrétien cultivated a public image as a street-smart populist who represented the interests of ordinary Canadians. But his folksy style masked an astute political intelligence. Under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Chrétien manoeuvred his way into many of the most coveted cabinet portfolios —including justice, finance and energy. “The art of politics is learning to walk with your back to the wall, your elbows high and a smile on your face,” Chrétien wrote in his best-selling 1985 autobiography, Straight from the Heart. “If you don’t learn that, you’re quickly finished.”

Chrétien’s associates say that he demands absolute loyalty from his followers—and can be bitter when he feels that he has been betrayed. Former Liberal cabinet minister Edward Lumley, a close friend and ally of Chrétien’s during the Trudeau era, learned that lesson when he supported Turner in the 1984 leadership race. Said Lumley, now a director of Bums Fry Ltd., a Toronto brokerage firm: “Chrétien was my teacher when I went to Ottawa, but after 1984 things were never the same between us. It is unfortunate. I lost a very close friend.”

But Chrétien’s biggest potential weakness is the lingering perception that he is a policy lightweight—capable of carrying out established programs, but not of formulating his own. It is an accusation that Chrétien deeply resents. In an interview last week, he defended his unorthodox managerial style, including his penchant for one-page memos. “If you cannot put what you have to say in one page, in a nutshell, it is because you do not understand what you are talking about.” Later, he boasted that he had earned higher fees on the lecture circuit than many other well-known Canadians, including Pierre Berton and Stephen Lewis. “I had to compete in that market,” Chrétien said proudly. “And they paid me more than the others—it was strict, pure competition.” His reported fee: $5,000 per appearance.

Still, Chrétien has clearly learned from the mistakes of his unsuccessful 1984 leadership bid. Back then, critics noted disparagingly that he delivered virtually the same nationalist speech at every campaign stop—reporters covering the candidate quickly dubbed it his “I-love-Canada speech.” This time, his campaign is again under the leadership of chairman John Rae (page 26). And Chrétien’s longtime adviser, Ottawa lawyer Edward Goldenberg, has assembled a team of 10 policy experts to brief the candidate and prepare a series of speeches on such issues as trade, the environment and foreign affairs. They also hope to rein in Chrétien’s tendency to lace his speeches with jokes. “He needs to show that he can be a serious man, not just an entertaining man,” said former Liberal cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp, 78, Chrétien’s political mentor. “He has to sound prime ministerial.”

Support: At the same time, Chrétien’s supporters say that his strong federalist views are certain to win favor among grassroots Liberals who disagreed with Turner’s endorsement “ of the Meech Lake accord. Said Newfoundland MP Brian Tobin, a former Turner loyalist who now supports Chrétien: “Jean Chrétien’s stand reflects the traditional view of the party.” For her part, Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs, a longtime Chrétien supporter, welcomed his call for stronger federal leadership. “Liberals have always been believers in strong central | government,” said Carstairs. “They want a government that is not afraid to initiate new national spending programs to ensure equal standards in every part of this country.”

But not all Liberals applauded Chrétien’s performance during his first week of the campaign. Morris Kaufman, past president of the Manitoba Liberal party, said that he and many other westerners are waiting to hear whether the candidate has any specific proposals to give the West a greater say in federal decisionmaking. And Kaufman dismissed Chrétien’s suggestion that the current constitutional stalemate could be resolved in the same way that a driver dislodges a car from a snowbank—“you just go forward, backward, forward, backward, and eventually you are back on the road,” as Chrétien said in Ottawa last week. Said Kaufman: “Chrétien’s analogy is amusing, but it is not good enough. Before he gets into the driver’s seat, I would like to know where he is going.”

Anger: And as Chrétien raised the campaign heat, his acknowledged principal opponent displayed an increasing combativeness. In Moncton, N.B., Martin angrily lashed out at Chrétien’s approach to national unity, asserting that no leadership candidate had a monopoly on patriotism. “Every single leadership candidate speaks for Canada,” he told Maclean’s. “Anybody who believes that they are going to build a country by crapping on Quebec had better think again.”

Still, Martin’s policies may be difficult to sell to a Liberal party currently preoccupied by constitutional issues. His speeches so far have concentrated on his assertion that Canada is becoming less competitive in an evolving world economy. To spur industrial expansion, Martin wants to establish a series of regional development funds that would use pension contributions to finance the growth of local businesses—especially those that specialize in environmental cleanup. But even Martin acknowledged that his message is neither catchy nor simple to explain.

Chrétien, meanwhile, seemed convinced that his call for a strengthened commitment to Canadian unity and strong central government was one that Liberals across the country would embrace. Relaxing in his $l,060-a-night hotel suite on the 36th floor of the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Montreal last week, he spoke of the crowd’s response to his speech the previous night. Said Chrétien: “I could feel the pleasure, coming in waves as I spoke. The mood was very good—it was a great pleasure for these people to hear about Canada.” If Chrétien can manage to maintain the momentum he created last week, his campaign for the Liberal mantle could well prove unstoppable.