CANADA

POLITICAL BREAKDOWN

THE SPLINTERING OF CANADA’S NATIONAL PARTIES PLACES THE COUNTRY ON AN UNCERTAIN COURSE

BRUCE WALLACE April 22 1991
CANADA

POLITICAL BREAKDOWN

THE SPLINTERING OF CANADA’S NATIONAL PARTIES PLACES THE COUNTRY ON AN UNCERTAIN COURSE

BRUCE WALLACE April 22 1991

POLITICAL BREAKDOWN

THE SPLINTERING OF CANADA’S NATIONAL PARTIES PLACES THE COUNTRY ON AN UNCERTAIN COURSE

CANADA

He is a parliamentarian who, in the words of a colleague, has always been on the “back, back, back benches.” But last week, Verdun, Que., MP Gilbert Chartrand briefly emerged into the limelight. Elected as a Conservative in 1984 and again in 1988, Chartrand bolted from the Tory caucus last May to join former environment minister Lucien Bouchard’s separatist Bloc Québécois. Last week, accusing his Bloc colleagues of being “aimed only at destroying the country,” Chartrand again switched his loyalty—back to the Conservatives. His return offered Prime Minister Brian Mulroney a rare occasion to celebrate a measure of revenge over Bouchard—until last year, one of his closest friends. Mulroney savored the fact that he had known of Chartrand’s intentions in advance, while Bouchard had not. “Not only did I know what he was going to do, I knew what he was going to say,” a jovial Mulroney later told friends. “I have 150 MPs and I pretty well know what they are up to. Lucien cannot keep track of eight.”

Apart from shedding light on Mulroney’s intensely partisan personality, the event was singular for another reason: it ran counter to a trend that increasingly alarms Canadians who are searching for solutions to the country’s deep divisions. Chartrand’s return to the Tory caucus stood at odds with the increasingly splintered front that all three traditional national parties present. Indeed, only days before

Chartrand’s reversal, Alberta’s provincial Conservatives, led by Premier Donald Getty, announced that they had formally severed their affiliation with Mulroney’s federal party. Over the same weekend, the Parti Québécois declared that it was withdrawing from an informal alliance that in the past two general elections has led the party to support the federal Tories. In the next election, declared PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau, the separatist party will throw its weight behind Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois.

The Tories are not the only party suffering from widening rifts. Animosity between federal Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien and Quebec’s Liberal premier, Robert Bourassa, has brought co-operation between the separate federal and Quebec parties to a standstill. For their part, federal New Democrats voted on March 10 to dissolve their connection with that party’s small Quebec wing, which has vocally supported sovereignty. At the same time, while one new political force—Bouchard’s Bloc—seeks support only within Quebec, another—the Western-based Reform Party of Canada—has

made it clear that it is interested only in voters outside that province. Said Robert Jackson, a Carleton University political scientist and former policy adviser to the federal Liberals: “National parties which unite Canadians from all provinces in a common direction may be becoming extinct.” As a result, some political analysts suggest that the next election will produce a patchwork Parliament in which no party holds a majority of seats. Predicted Jackson: “We will end up with a stalemated Parliament unable to confront the challenges that Canada faces in the next decade.”

Indeed, the uncertainty arising from the death last June of the proposed Meech Lake constitutional accord has left the Canadian political landscape with deep fractures, predominantly along regional lines. “After Meech failed,” said Winnipeg businessman and Liberal activist Israel (Izzy) Asper, “all the latent grievances of English Canada came out. Every-

body reverted to the womb of their region.” Those differences are often expressed in harsh terms. Saskatchewan’s Conservative premier, Grant Devine, for one, last week issued a stern rebuke to Quebecers who propose an economic union between an independent Quebec and the rest of Canada. Declared Devine: “If Quebec wants to go, it will be with its own dollar and it will have to reimburse us for its part of the national debt.” Such statements have made the search for a nationsaving compromise more difficult, according to

Montreal lawyer and former federal Liberal cabinet minister Francis Fox. Said Fox: “There is much too much emotion on both sides. If we could only get away from the premise that any national solution will have winners and losers, a deal is there to be made.”

But amid the escalating rhetoric, no national political party appears capable of brokering such a formula. For one thing, many voters plainly hold all three mainstream parties in low esteem. A March Gallup poll showed that nearly one-quarter of Canadians surveyed said that none of the three national leaders would make an acceptable prime minister. Said Vancouver-based constitutional lawyer Edward McWhinney: “People are fed up with the old parties.”

Outside Quebec, that sentiment has contributed to the growth in Reform party membership. Observed Saskatoon management consultant Alfred Bentley, a lifelong Conservative activist: “Not just Tories are hurt by Reform. They are attracting people from all political factions.” But as the Reform party considers expanding its operations into Ontario and the East, it may find it difficult to speak even for all of English-speaking Canada. The party’s commitment to cuts in social spending, for one, may prove to be tough to sell in Atlantic Canada, where the national welfare safety net is a traditional bulwark against hard economic times.

Still, no other party is any better placed to attract nationwide support. According to the latest opinion surveys, Reform has badly eroded Conservative support in the West—and hampered Liberal attempts to rebuild a base in that region. For its part, the NDP had little presence in Quebec even before its latest § rupture with its Quebec wing, a and has attracted only scat| tered support in Atlantic Canis ada. But with Chartrand’s reI turn to the Conservative fold 1 last week, federal Tories, at “ least, insisted that their party was not irreversibly fragmented. Said Senator Norman Atkins, co-chairman of the Conservatives’ last two successful federal campaigns: “Things will shift before an election writ is issued. And Canadians are pretty prudent when it comes to electoral behavior. They will not vote against the best interests of the country.” The troubling fact, however, is that Canadians show little sign of agreeing on what those national interests are.

E. KAYE FULTON

BRUCE WALLACE with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa