With a federal election expected sometime next year, Jean Chrétiens Liberals are riding high in the polls. But the party has been dogged by criticism of Chrétien ’s leadership, controversy over its candidate selection process and the lack of stated policies. Chrétien, who since 1990 has represented the Beauséjour riding in New Brunswick, recently spoke to Maclean’s Managing Editor Robert Lewis, Ottawa Bureau Chief Anthony Wilson-Smith and Ottawa correspondent E. Kaye Fulton. Excerpts from that conversation in his Parliament Hill office-.
Maclean’s: What are the problems of being leader of the official Opposition ?
Chrétien: In Opposition, you have no authority at all.
Maclean’s: Some Liberals are upset with your decision to unilaterally name candidates in several Toronto-area ridings without the usual process of nomination meetings. Does the criticism trouble you?
Chrétien: I have the power to name candidates. It is a very democratic power, vested in me by 90 per cent of the duly elected members of the party. I have used it twice so far, out of 295 ridings. In ridings that you have a real chance of winning, you will have tons of people that want to run. It does not mean the people selected will not be good members. But you have to think about a team—and a government, too. Because someone is the most popular person in one riding does not mean that they will necessarily be the best choice for minister of finance. And I am not
satisfied with the number of -
women. If I have to move on this issue, I move. If I really need a candidate, I will name him or her. And I have to tell you that I will have very good candidates. I say to some of these people, ‘Don’t worry about the fight in the riding.’ I have the power to say, ‘I can find you a riding that you can win.’ If I ask somebody to run and I say, ‘You will run in a riding in which we have no chance of winning,’ he will not come. Maclean’s: What three things would you do differently than the Conservative government on the economy?
Chrétien: We are paying the price for fighting inflation and having a high dollar and high
figure. You cannot. I just say that they fought inflation at all costs and it was wrong.
As well, we will also have to have a growth policy oriented towards exports. And we also have to challenge Canadians that they can be better. They are in a terribly depressed mood today. You move across the country and nobody wants to take a risk because we seem to be trapped in these tracks of fighting inflation at all costs. What you have to do is to change the mentality. You have to create hope. The United States changes presidents and bam, the mood changes because Bill Clinton has said he will do something. Let’s try to create growth,
interest rates. That is a mistake of the past and the government is still fighting to keep the dollar at a certain level. The dollar will probably find a level that the economy can sustain. Of course, you cannot let the dollar go to zero. But, we lost a year and a half of growth when the dollar was kept at 90 cents or 89 cents (U.S.) to go to one-per-cent inflation. You cannot go back to that situation. At that time, I would have let the dollar go lower for a while. I don’t pick a
invest in some programs. We talk about how we have to put more money in research and development. We have to invest in the brains of young people, wherever it is needed—make sure that we get more for our buck out of this. Maclean’s: If you become prime minister, many people expect you to abolish some current legislation that you have criticized, such as the Goods and Services Tax. But you have not yet made any commitments. Why is that? Chrétien: It is so simple to make a sensational speech. But the reality is that people expect someone to be a responsible leader—and I am. When I oppose something, it is because we predict it will cause problems. If what we predict occurs, we will change it when we are in power. But suppose I say that I will do something—and suppose that I am wrong today. Circumstances might change. You would then come to me and say ‘Mr. Chrétien, you promised to tear it up.’ People would say, ‘Ah, Chrétien, you flip-flopped.’
Maclean’s: How do you feel about Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark’s suggestion that he would still like the House of Commons to reopen or pass certain parts of the failed Charlottetown constitutional accord?
Chrétien: I don’t know what he means by that. It depends on the nature of the amendments. I believe that after we have had a national referendum, it will be very difficult to amend the Constitution without consulting the people unless it is a very technical, minor thing. Maclean’s: Would you run in the next election
and say to voters, 7promise not to talk about the Constitution for four years’?
Chrétien: Oh, no, my campaign would not be that. But it will not be far away from that. I was the first one to say we should have a moratorium on constitutional negotiations. I will not go around the country during an election talking about the Constitution. I am convinced that people do not want to discuss the Constitution at this time. But it cannot be set aside forever. Maclean’s: Do you think it was good to hold the Oct. 26 referendum?
Chrétien: It was a great idea—not because it was mine. The referendum proved one thing: that politicians had moved away from the population. The ratings on TV dropped whenever people heard a program on the Constitution. People would pick up the newspaper and see a big story on the Constitution and they would throw it straight into the wastepaper basket. Amendments to the Constitution should not be the daily bread of politicians. It was so easy for politicians not to talk about the real problems. I know that. I always felt we were cut off from the people. I was dragged into the debate. But I never lost my cool on this issue. I didn’t buy the big drama when the Prime Minister said the country would disappear. I never bought it. Maclean’s: You do not include yourself among, the politicians who are distrusted by the public?
Chrétien: Whatever you say, you are part of the family. You cannot say, ‘I am not a politician.’ People don’t say, ‘I like one or the other.’
They just say that they do not like politicians. Maclean’s: How can you separate yourself from that distrust?
Chrétien: There used to be a phrase that people respected me for my candor. But today all politicians have problems of communication—it is terrible, but it is a reality. The problem is that we are talking in 15-second clips on TV all the time about very complex problems. It is so simple to give simple answers—Yes or a No in a clip for 10 seconds on TV. I am not like that. I have a lot of experience and I hope it will come through eventually. Meanwhile, I do what I have always done. I go and talk to the people. I make good speeches, apparently, although there is never a national reporter around. I talk about integrity, honesty. I talk about the independence of Canada. I talk about the economic mismanagement by this government. And I will not make promises that I am not sure I can keep. So I am cautious—I try to explain all the nuances that exist. People can look at my background. I have been a long time in politics and I have never been involved in any problems or scandals at any time. It’s not nice for me to talk about myself, but it’s a reality that has not come through. I have been a cabinet minister for 18 years. Check your records. You have computers, you push a button and you will find nothing. Maclean’s: You have never even cheated at golf?
Chrétien: I have been what I call Liberal with the rules. □
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