Anthony Wilson-Smith July 2 1990



Anthony Wilson-Smith July 2 1990




It was a day that saw a dramatic setback in the nation’s capital—and a long-awaited triumph in Calgary. As Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proclaimed the death of the Meech Lake accord in Ottawa, Jean Chrétien greeted his victory in the Liberal leadership race with words of praise for the newly defeated. After a bitter campaign, he mounted a call for party unity, singling out each of his four opponents for praise. And he pledged to work for a healing of tensions in his home province of Quebec. Then, Chrétien turned his fire on Mulroney over what he called the Prime Minister’s “pressure-cooker” approach to the Meech Lake negotiations. To a roar from delegates in Calgary’s Saddledome, Chrétien declared, “Now is the time to turn off the stove and fire the cook.”

With that, the 56-year-old Chrétien took his place as the 10th leader in the party’s history since Confederation. His first-ballot victory with 2,652 votes—a commanding 57 per cent—was more than double that of the second-place finisher, Montreal businessman and MP Paul Martin, who won 1,176 votes. The other candidates were Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, who received 499 votes; Toronto MP and anti-abortion activist Thomas Wappel, with 267 votes; and MP John Nunziata, also from Toronto, who trailed with 64 votes.

But despite the large margin of Chrétien’s victory, he immediately faced a series of daunting political challenges. The most immediate was rebuilding a fragmented and demoralized party that in the last two elections has lost its traditional power base in Quebec. That problem has been compounded by bitter disagreements among Liberals over the Meech Lake accord. The issue drove a wedge between Chrétien—who had strong objections to parts of the accord—and supporters of Martin and Copps, who strongly favored the agreement. In

the wake of Chrétien’s win, two Quebec Liberal MPs, Jean Lapierre and Gilles Rocheleau, said that they planned to leave Chrétien’s caucus. But an unapologetic Chrétien told Maclean’s that, while there will be “room for everybody” in his party, he will make little effort to win back dissidents. Declared Chrétien: “We do not want people who are not comfortable. They will go—and so be it” (page 17).

That tough stance contrasted with the public show of unity that the five candidates staged after the announcement of Chrétien’s victory. The new leader, clearly mindful of the strains that had surfaced during the campaign, gave a carefully tailored acceptance speech that drew on his personal ties with Martin and Copps, his two principal challengers. He remarked that, while he was a student at Laval University, he had attended the 1958 Liberal leadership convention that elected Lester Pearson as leader. But, said Chrétien, he personally had supported Paul Martin, a prominent longtime Liberal cabinet minister and the father of his challenger.

Indeed, Martin Sr., who celebrated his 87th birthday Saturday, attended the convention. Chrétien also made warm references to “my dear friend Sheila Copps,” and emphasized his desire to work closely with her in the future.

For his own part, Chrétien, who has not had a seat in the Commons since 1986, said that he does not plan to seek election immediately.

Instead, he plans to devote his early efforts to party organization and rebuilding support for the party in Quebec. But some time before the next election, due in 1992 or 1993, he is expected to seek a Commons seat in a byelection in a riding near Ottawa, where he now lives. One possible choice is the riding of Gatineau-La Lièvre, where Liberal MP Mark Assad is regarded as likely to resign. But Chrétien organizers say that he would then return as a candidate in the next general election to his original riding of St-Maurice, which includes his home town of Shawinigan, Que.

As well, Chrétien organizers said that they hope to attract prominent new figures to run for the party. Among them: former Olympic skier Ken Read and Robert Nixon, now treasurer of the Ontario government and a former leader of that province’s Liberal party. In fact, Chrétien organizers say privately that they can offer such recruits prominent positions in any future Liberal government because they are not impressed with the calibre of some members of the present caucus. Declared one Chrétien caucus organizer: “A lot of them are idiots. They will be overshadowed by a lot of the new

star candidates Chrétien will bring in.”

But Chrétien and his aides are clearly pinning most of their hopes on the strength of his personal popularity with Canadians. Much of the party’s success in building support in coming months will depend upon matching Chrétien directly against the Prime Minister, whose popularity is currently at an all-time low in opinion polls. Chrétien, who was first elected to the Commons in 1963, sat in the cabinets of three prime ministers and resigned in 1986, is regarded as one of the few politicians whose popularity transcends regional and party lines. In fact, even his opponents concede that he may be able to regain seats in the West, where his anti-separatist stance is admired. Preston

Manning, leader of the Alberta-based Reform Party, for one, told Maclean’s, “Chrétien will be a better communicator with the West.” But, Manning added: “What will he say? He will have to say different things [than his predecessors] on three fundamental Liberal policies: free trade, spending and his way of representing us in constitutional situations. And

he will be dependent on Quebec support.”

And despite Chrétien’s wide-ranging popularity and strong Liberal roots, he inherited a party with sharply etched divisions. Although former leaders Pierre Trudeau and John Turner joined Chrétien onstage after his win Saturday night, both men figure in the party’s present divisions. Trudeau, who was one of the most bitter critics of the Meech Lake accord, has little to do with party activities. Asked several weeks ago to join the victory celebrations after the selection of the new leader, Trudeau agreed. But, he added,

“I will do it as long as I do not have to hold hands.” He got his way.

At the same time, despite the warm public reception for Turner last week, many Liberals regard him as the principal author of their present misfortunes. Said Howard Levitt, an Ontario Chrétien supporter: “Turner left us a party with factions that hate each other, no policy ideas and a horrible nomination process for the next election.

Turner almost destroyed the party, and now Chrétien will have to rebuild it.”

In fact, key Chrétien operatives acknowledge that the path from the Liberal leadership to the Prime Minister’s Office will be strewn with potential hazards—particularly through Quebec. “Many of our Quebec delegates are extremely nervous,” said one Quebec organizer. “We tell our people that his charisma will carry us through. But they can read the papers and they know what we are up against.” One striking sign of

the party’s strains, an organizer later noted, was the enthusiastic applause at a policy forum on Friday when delegates learned that the Meech Lake accord had been defeated.

To counter the perception that Chrétien is out of touch with modem Quebec, his advisers acknowledge, the new leader must rebuild the party’s organization in the province. The most powerful Quebecer to emerge from the cam-

paign as a member of Chrétien’s inner circle was Senator Pietro Rizzuto, a skilled organizer and fund raiser who served as the candidate’s senior Quebec organizer. With the campaign now past, Rizzuto is actively seeking a greater role over policy. But he has many opponents in the provincial Quebec Liberal party, whose members will have an impact on Chrétien’s

chances for success in his home province. One politician whose support Chrétien advisers say they want is Serge Joyal, a Trudeau-era cabinet minister and now a Montreal lawyer, who is expected to play a major role in formulating constitutional policy. The key advisers will also include: longtime Chrétien aide Eddie Goldenberg, an Ottawa lawyer; former Toronto MP David Collenette and Montreal communications consultant André Morrow, who served as Turner’s television guru; Ottawa lawyer Allan Lutfy; and former journalist George Radwanski. First among equals, however, will be John Rae, Chrétien’s campaign manager, who will return for now to his job as a vice-president of Power Corp. in Montreal.

Despite Chrétien’s conciliatory victory speech, his former opponents are unlikely to play major roles in the caucus. In fact, Liberals who were in the Martin and Copps _ camps said that, before the i Saturday night display of uni| ty, Chrétien had shown little s inclination to extend a welI coming hand. Said a senior I Quebec adviser to Martin: “ “Those guys are just brutal and they are showing no sign of trying to heal the wounds.” The Copps campaign also had several angry brushes with the Chrétien camp. Relations between the two groups became testy within weeks of the two candidates’ announcing their respective candidacies. One Chrétien adviser accused Copps of making “unwarranted attacks” against him.

On the convention floor, Copps organizers

scrambled to swing enough delegates over to their side to ensure that she would run ahead of Wappel, who, in the final two days before the vote, was rumored to be overtaking her. Copps organizers enlisted well-known Liberal women, such as Ontario Health Minister Elinor Caplan, to lend public endorsements. But their blitz found no sympathy in the Chrétien camp. Said a senior Copps organizer: “They wanted their first-ballot victory, and they did not lift a finger to help us.”

For their part, Chrétien advisers did not conceal their anger at what they deemed to be personal and irresponsible attacks on their candidate by Martin and Copps. Both candidates made it their priority to exploit Chrétien’s silence on the Meech Lake issue. Copps decided to attack him at the convention’s first debate, a forum on youth issues. According to her advisers, Copps had grown increasingly frustrated by Chrétien’s refusal to take a position on whether the accord should be passed in the two holdout legislatures of Manitoba and Newfoundland. But even some of those aides expressed surprise at the ferocity of her assault on Chrétien. “If he is against it in public, why is he for it in private?” Copps demanded to

know. For their part, Chrétien strategists said that they were furious at what one of them described as Copps’s “irresponsible” behavior.

At the same time, the Martin camp attempted to profit from that exchange—by refraining from launching their own assault. Earlier in June, at a Montreal policy forum, some youth delegates supporting Martin chanted “Judas” and “sellout” while Chrétien was speaking. But last week, senior Martin organizers ordered them to be more restrained in their criticism, while they intensified efforts to win over Chrétien supporters. “We wanted the issue of Chrétien’s silence raised, and Sheila did us the favor,” said one senior Martin aide. “But we did not want to drive Chrétien’s people into an armed camp against us.”

Other unrelated but bitter divisions surfaced as well. On Thursday, Elvio Del Zotto, president of the federal Liberals’ Ontario wing, angrily accused Chrétien supporters of trying to block his bid for the vice-presidency of the party. At one point, as he circulated on the convention floor, Del Zotto confronted Chrétien aide Goldenberg and showed him a card that he alleged was being circulated by Rizzuto. The card listed a slate of candidates for the

party executive that did not include Del Zotto. He told Goldenberg, “This is a hell of a way to unite the party.”

Del Zotto said that the Chrétien group's failure to support him could result in unspecified repercussions—even if Del Zotto subsequently won the post. But Goldenberg disowned responsibility for the card and, the following day, he explained that the so-called slate was not sanctioned by the Chrétien organization and that it had in fact been withdrawn. In the end, Del Zotto lost to Calgarian Colin MacDonald, while former Montreal MP and staunch Meech Lake opponent Donald Johnston won the party presidency.

But the most passionate divisions remained rooted in the debate over Meech Lake. That was openly evident during Turner’s farewell address on Thursday night. When he reiterated his support for the accord, Martin and Copps supporters rose to their feet to applaud. But the majority of Chrétien’s supporters remained pointedly silent. In fact, there were deep divisions within the Chrétien ranks themselves about Meech Lake. Several of the key Montreal advisers wanted Chrétien to openly endorse the accord. But Chrétien embraced the advice of those who urged him to remain silent, including veteran Liberal Mitchell Sharp, Ontario co-chairman Patrick Lavelle and B.C. campaign chairman Ross Fitzpatrick. Said one adviser: “We let him know the negative impact that [speaking out on Meech] would have on delegates from Ontario and the West.”

After the victory, Chrétien’s strategists said that they plan to move quickly to put an end to party disunity by outflanking dissidents. That campaign will involve efforts to rebuild the Quebec wing with new people, while phasing out organizers who worked for Martin and Copps or who are tied to the provincial Liberals. Before the vote, however, Chrétien organizers said privately that the severity of the attacks upon him during the campaign by Martin and Copps aides ran the risk of hampering efforts to attract new supporters in Quebec. “These people are doing Brian Mulroney’s dirty work for him,” said one Chrétien aide. “Liberals should not be endorsing Mulroney’s disgusting approach and handling of this thing,” he added, in reference to the divisive Meech Lake issue.

Still, in the glare of the convention aftermath, Martin and Copps pledged to work with Chrétien—and he arranged a Sunday morning meeting with his opponents to patch up their differences. But after more than a quarter of a century in political life, Chrétien has no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. At the same time, he reacted defiantly to suggestions that he represents an outdated vision of Canada. “I am not an antique,” he declared after his victory. Now, he will have to prove that his past experience can help lead the Liberals back into power—and the country into the future.