CANADA

GETTING SPECIFIC

WITH HIS UNRULY PARTY DIVIDED, JEAN CHRETIEN PREPARES TO OUTLINE HIS POLICY OPTIONS

E. KAYE FULTON December 28 1992
CANADA

GETTING SPECIFIC

WITH HIS UNRULY PARTY DIVIDED, JEAN CHRETIEN PREPARES TO OUTLINE HIS POLICY OPTIONS

E. KAYE FULTON December 28 1992

GETTING SPECIFIC

CANADA

WITH HIS UNRULY PARTY DIVIDED, JEAN CHRETIEN PREPARES TO OUTLINE HIS POLICY OPTIONS

E. KAYE FULTON

GLEN ALLEN

LUKE FISHER

Patrick Lavelle is what Ottawa’s Liberal hierarchy calls a “quality candidate”—a notch below a star, but certainly good enough for a cabinet portfolio. The Toronto business executive, former Ontario deputy minister and economic adviser to Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien is also in political limbo. Although Lavelle is Chrétien’s choice as candidate for the federal riding of Etobicoke/Lakeshore, riding executives are reluctant to set a date for the nomination meeting. The reason: anti-abortion activists have been feverishly selling party memberships in a bid to stack the impending meeting and secure the riding for their own single-issue representative—a trend that also threatens to turn other Toronto-area ridings into messy battlegrounds of warring party factions. “Everyone is in a holding pattern,” says Lavelle, 53. “It is disastrous.”

To many Liberals, such problems are uncomfortable reminders of the obstacles that stand between continued Opposition status and the formation of a new government after the next federal election. After more than two years of Chrétien’s leadership, the most popular federal party in Canada continues to seesaw between apparent good fortune and calamity. Although opinion polls show that the Liberals enjoy a 30point lead over the second-place Conservatives, senior Liberals complain that the furor provoked by the party’s chronic nomination wars, as well as the public splits in caucus over issues such as the government’s drug-patent legislation, have tainted the party’s image. Another point of contention has been Chrétien’s reluctance to carve out a distinctive platform. As one highly placed strategist acknowledges: “If Chrétien had been smart, he would have put his stamp on the party and its policies from Day 1. But he is a bit immobilized in terms of making tough decisions.”

In fact, Liberal strategists say that Chrétien

is now prepared to take that plunge. Beginning in January, he will attempt to dispel doubts about his leadership abilities by unveiling what his advisers say will be detailed economic and social policies—with accompanying price tags—in a series of speeches across the country. The economic platform will include an emphasis on research and development; extensive worker-retraining programs; tax incentives for small businesses; and the renegotiation of the free-trade deal between Canada, the United States and Mexico to win more concessions for Canada. Written in large part by Chrétien’s former leadership rival, Montreal

MP Paul Martin, the platform offers what Martin claims is a “a radical change in direction” in the role of government and the management of a recession-wracked economy.

Those policy statements will clearly be welcome news for those members of Chrétien’s caucus and staff who have been unnerved by the absence of a Liberal action plan. Winnipeg North Centre MP David Walker, for one, says that he is concerned that the Liberals could fritter away their lead in the polls. Adds Walker: “People want to feel that we’ve given issues some thought. It has to have some commonsense core to it.” And party strategists who

favored an earlier enunciation of Liberal policies argue that the landslide election of U.S. president-elect Bill Clinton in November proved that voters are anxious for concrete alternatives. Said one adviser: “Chrétien believes that if you put your policy out too soon, the government will steal it. Clinton proved that kind of thinking outdated.”

For his part, Chrétien has bitterly complained that, in spite of his frequent forays across the country, the media has unfairly

portrayed him as a leader cocooned from his caucus and the public by turf-conscious aides. In a recent interview with Maclean’s— watched over anxiously by an adviser—he noted that those cross-country travels never receive national media attention (page 58). “Of course, reporters go by the truckloads with Mulroney,” Chrétien said. Still, acknowledges Peter Donolo, Chrétien’s communications director, “The leader is conscious that he has to further define himself.”

Strategists are counting on the Liberal blueprint to paper over cracks in an increasingly fractious caucus. Earlier this month, the 122member caucus of Liberal MPs and senators simmered in a dispute over the party’s decision

not to launch a full-scale Senate fight against the Tories’ controversial drug-patent bill. That legislation, now in the Tory-dominated upper chamber, will lengthen the period in which companies can produce drugs without competition—and it will likely increase the price of prescription drugs in Canada. Some caucus members argued that the issue strikes at the heart of traditional Liberal tenets. But the caucus decided not to wage a battle that it could not win—leaving some Liberals complaining that the party is compromising its principles. Said one MP: “Our decisions aren’t based on public interest, but on whether they will impact on our chances of getting into power.”

That quest for power is at the root of another contentious issue. Under authority granted to him by the party last February, Chrétien bypassed the usual process of nomination by election and directly appointed former Toronto mayor Arthur Eggleton and local businesswoman Mila Velshi as the party’s candidates in two Toronto-area ridings in October. That measure, intended initially to curtail the infiltration of the party by single-issue candidates such as anti-abortionists and their supporters, provoked a storm of protest, and not only from grassroots Liberals.

Maverick Toronto MP John Nunziata, for one, lashed out at his own party’s abandonment of democratic principles. Fired from his post as employment critic for his denunciation of Chrétien’s appointments, Nunziata said that the party threatened him with further sanctions, including expulsion from caucus, if he continued to speak out. Revealed Nunziata last week: “The backroom boys drafted a letter of apology and gave me a deadline to sign it. I told them politely where to put it.” Other Liberals, while less outspoken, also express concern over Chrétien’s new powers. Notes Lavelle, who says that he told Chrétien he would not accept an appointment: “I think it is a very dicey thing to limit the democratic process.”

The tempestuous state of affairs within Liberal ranks has clearly played a role in the party’s plans to escalate its election agenda— and distract public attention from its internal problems. Said one adviser to the leader: “How can Chrétien engender the kind of confidence the polls say is out there when his own party is beginning to implode?” Largely because of that, for the front-running but beleaguered Liberals, an election cannot come fast enough.

E. KAYE FULTON with GLEN ALLEN and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa