The road to victory

Jean Chrétien surmounts the obstacles

CHRIS WOOD July 2 1990

The road to victory

Jean Chrétien surmounts the obstacles

CHRIS WOOD July 2 1990

The road to victory

Jean Chrétien surmounts the obstacles


As the finish line finally came into view, Jean Chrétien’s minutely planned strategy for winning his party’s leadership race very nearly failed him. It was a strategy based firmly on the twin supports of Chrétien’s folksy charm and his wellfinanced and street-toughened personal political machine. And until less than two weeks before the Calgary convention, Chrétien had followed it to the letter: avoiding taking specific positions on most issues in favor of heart-stirring but artfully imprecise appeals to patriotism and national unity. But on Tuesday, June 12, Chrétien was being pressed as never before to make his stand clear on the central political issue of the day: the Meech Lake constitutional accord. On the previous weekend, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had emerged from seven days of intense private negotiations with the 10 provincial premiers to announce a last-minute agreement that might salvage the accord—with additions. Would Chrétien, his rivals and critics demanded, now drop his earlier opposition and, in the interests of national unity, call for Meech Lake’s ratification?

Chrétien spent more than an hour in private consultation with 50 Liberal MP supporters—then declined to answer. In keeping with the advice that he had received from his top strategists, who had urged him from the beginning to fashion his leadership bid around ambiguity, he simply refused to offer a public view. Instead, Chrétien and his wife of 32 years, Aline, retreated to their waterfront cottage near his home town of Shawinigan, Que., to rest and prepare for the following week’s convention. “The trouble for a party out of power,” said Ottawa lawyer Eddie Goldenberg,

Chrétien’s longtime policy adviser and campaign lieutenant, “is finding how to say things that aren’t irresponsible. A measure of substance is not to make irresponsible promises.” But that strategy had infuriated Chrétien’s rivals throughout the five-month campaign for the Liberal leadership, and it did so again as he remained silent on Meech Lake. Said Paul Martin last week: “When the going gets tough, you don’t hightail it into the tall grass.” And as the Liberal delegates prepared to cast their ballots in Saturday’s leadership vote, many of them had lingering doubts about what exactly Chrétien stood for. Said Toronto delegate Roberta Need, a previous Chrétien supporter who now says she is not happy with his silence throughout the week: “I am angry that he took that stupid advice to keep his mouth shut about Meech all week.”

But there was no disputing the effectiveness of Chrétien’s single-minded pursuit of his party’s leadership. The 56-year-old lawyer entered the campaign on Jan. 23 with the open support of 31 of the 82 Liberal MPs and 24 of the party’s 53 senators. By campaign’s end, his advisers claimed the support of an ad5 ditional 19 MPs and as many j±j as 480 of the 800 party offi| ciáis and provincial legislase tors entitled to vote in Calga§ ry. Indeed, as early as mid1 May, even his opponents’ " campaigners had begun to Chrétien: an overwhelming win despite his silence on Meech Lake concede that, with Chrétien

having won declarations of support from more than half of the 4,700 delegates going to Calgary, the campaign was all but over. As for Chrétien’s own campaign team, said Ontario organizer Patrick Lavelle at the end of May: “We are just waiting for the convention. We are tracking delegates. But you do that for a couple of hours, and then B ! I If what?”

B . It was not only Liberals " conceded that Chrétien / B ^ had effectively won the con: B* É vention weeks before it start -^^B j ed. As the federal Jgg¡. ment strove—ultimately : t = unsuccessfully—to secure RP> í the passage of Meech Lake, Br senior Conservatives also beBgan courting the support influence of the unelected private citizen from Shawinigan.

In mid-May, as a Commons

committee led by Tory MP Jean Charest worked to break the constitutional impasse, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Stanley Hartt, contacted Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff, Chrétien’s constitutional adviser, in search of Chrétien’s views. Later, during the tense negotiations between Mulroney and the premiers in Ottawa last month, Goldenberg and Chrétien campaign chairman John Rae met with Mulroney’s top officials for private briefings.

That acknowledgment of Chrétien’s political weight was a testament to the success of a campaign that, in many respects, really started six years ago. It began, in fact, on June 16, 1984—the day that Chrétien’s previous bid for the Liberal leadership ended in a loss to John Turner. Moments after announcing that result, then-party president Iona Campagnolo called the dejected and weary second-place finisher to the stage of the Civic Arena in Ottawa and drew huge cheers when she described Chrétien as “the man who came second in our votes, but first in our hearts.” Despite his occasional, carefully worded denials that he still desired the leadership, Chrétien kept in touch with the closely knit nucleus of key aides who had directed his first campaign. That contact continued even after he resigned from the Commons in 1986 after 23 years, 16 of them in senior cabinet positions.

Chrétien accepted a position with Lang, Michener, working in Ottawa and Montreal. But he stayed in constant touch with his key

supporters. Among them: Rae, the studied and astute vice-president of Montreal-based Power Corp.; Goldenberg, a former executive assistant to Chrétien and one of his closest confidants; David and Penny Collenette, political organizers in charge of delegate selection and convention strategy; Ottawa lawyer Allan Lutfy; and former Liberal cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp. The Chrétien loyalists called themselves the Club of 494—a sly reference to the self-described Club of 195 partisans who stood by Turner when he lost his first leadership bid to Pierre Trudeau in 1968 and to the

margin of 494 votes by which Turner defeated Chrétien 16 years later.

Unlike Turner, however, Chrétien never allowed himself to drop from public view. Instead, he supplemented his law income with $5,000-a-night speaking engagements. By August, 1989, six months before he officially entered the race, Chrétien’s campaign was in high gear. Two paid organizers quietly opened a Toronto office, decorated with Elections Canada riding maps and news clippings but destined to grow within three months to the computer-equipped headquarters for a fulltime staff of seven. In Ottawa, Chrétien functionaries opened a campaign bank account. One of the first expenses: travel subsidies for many of the 75 influential party members who flew to the capital from across Canada for a two-day campaign strategy meeting at a private club, capped by a cocktail party in the backyard of Chrétien’s bungalow off the Rideau Canal. From his base in Montreal, meanwhile, Rae extracted pledges from contributors for the $1.7 million that the campaign was permitted to spend under party rules. Said Goldenberg: “Our intent was to have a full organization in place before the January announcement.”

Little was left to chance. A travel itinerary lessened the chance of media attention before his campaign was officially launched by having Chrétien spend only three days a week on the road until Christmas. An important speech outlining Chrétien’s opposition to the Meech Lake accord underwent 15 drafts and was

moulded by 25 people—including Sharp—for 14 weeks before it was finally delivered at the University of Ottawa law school on Jan. 16.

Despite those precautions, the early skirmishes in the campaign proved inconclusive. Ontario’s Liberals were the first to choose delegates. And in three of the first four Toronto-area ridings to select their representatives, rival Martin swept the 12-person slates. But the setback was brief. Within days, bolstered by a fresh infusion of funds from Chrétien’s well-funded campaign war chest, the candidate’s Ontario organization regrouped. Recalled Toronto campaigner Wes Muir: “A lot of us hunkered down after we realized that we got our ass kicked out there.” From that point on, in riding after riding, Chrétien’s well-organized troops swept up every delegate selected to vote in Calgary. Only in a handful of ridings was Chrétien’s dominance successfully challenged by other candidates.

Indeed, Chrétien plainly benefited from the misfortunes of his four opponents—and the absence from the field of any rivals approaching his own political stature. From the start, Chrétien clearly dominated most Canadians’ awareness of the leadership contest. For his part, Martin, a Montreal MP and millionaire shipping executive, pinned his hopes on seeing a strong field of candidates join the race, winning their supporters over during the balloting at the convention. But, with the exception of popular Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, those candidates did not materialize. Declared Martin’s campaign

manager Michael Robinson: “We tried to balance our campaign on the solid framework of policy. But no one was listening.”

Instead, by April, with Martin’s campaign failing to generate excitement, it was running out of money. It closed its Newfoundland office, volunteers in Ontario drifted away to work on an expected provincial election, and Martin confided to Maclean ’s that he was spending his own money on the campaign. Conceded Robinson: “We were outmuscled.”

In the end, even Chrétien’s ambivalence towards the federal government’s attempts to

salvage the Meech Lake accord played in his favor. Outside Quebec, Chrétien’s early opposition to the constitutional agreement was hugely popular. “Meech Lake was a lightning rod in Ontario,” said York West MP and Chrétien loyalist Sergio Marchi. “It was more than a policy position. Here was a Quebecer saying ‘Yes, there have to be changes to the accord.’ That brought a lot of respect.” Inside Quebec, meanwhile, even though polls showed that Chrétien’s stand on the accord was out of step with most voters, his superior organization still delivered the lion’s share of the province’s 1,200 delegate positions to his camp.

Not even his last-minute dithering over whether to speak out during the accord’s final days appears to have damaged Chrétien’s appeal. Indeed, after he sought the advice of five Liberal MPs from Newfoundland, one commented: “He made us feel as though our input was crucial to his decision. Perhaps it was and perhaps it wasn’t. But the fact we were asked was refreshing.”

Many other Liberals plainly shared that favorable view of Chrétien’s cautious approach to hard issues. Still, with the campaign now behind him, and the task of uniting and defining the direction of a divided party ahead of him, Chrétien is likely to find that leadership cannot always be exercised through ambiguity—however refreshingly buttressed by consultation.

CHRIS WOOD with PAUL KAIHLA in Calgary and E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa