In the past, his style was always to tell it like it is—straight from the heart. But recently, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, like Audrey McLaughlin of the NDP, has been curiously silent on the issue that tops the national political agenda—the Constitution. Chrétien’s credibility on public issues is unrivalled: according to the most recent Gallup poll, released on Aug. 13, his party enjoys the support of 44 per cent of decided voters, compared to 21 per cent for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and 16 per cent for Mclaughlin’s NDP. But apart from demanding a national referendum on any new constitutional accord, the Liberal leader has confined himself to occasional criticism of the government’s handling of the unity issue, delivering statements that in some cases have confused members of his own party. Said Carleton University political scientist Robert Jackson, a former senior Liberal policy adviser: “The problem with the Liberals, as with the NDP, is that they don’t really know how to articulate a strategy with regard to this whole thing. Their strategy has been to say nothing at all of any consequence.”
In fact, as the constitutional negotiations neared a climax in Ottawa last week, Chrétien and McLaughlin were, for the most part, far from the action.
In recent weeks, Chrétien’s staff members have organized a series of campaign-style visits to small communities in Ontario and Quebec, while McLaughlin has toured the country attacking the Conservatives’ trade and economic policies. Effectively frozen out of the constitutional deliberations, both leaders may have had little choice but to focus on other issues. Said one Liberal strategist who requested anonymity: “This is not a question of hiding out. You can’t go on a great crusade and say, ‘Here is the solution to the country’s problems,’ when you don’t even know what’s being said in the room.” Others stress the difficulty of trying to launch a concerted attack on something that is, in effect, a moving target. Notes Jackson: “One of the problems is that the government doesn’t seem to have a strategy itself. It’s like attacking a piece of spaghetti—you can’t really oppose the government’s principles until you know what these principles are.”
With the future of the country potentially at
stake, representatives of both major opposition parties say that they are determined to keep partisan politics out of the debate. But partisan considerations may account for the opposition’s apparent passivity. The Liberals, still reeling from the bitter split that divided them over the failed Meech Lake accord, are clearly anxious to avoid further infighting. In addition, any strongly stated federalist opinions could invite trouble in Quebec—where Chrétien’s disapproval rating already stands at 64 per cent. On the other hand, a pro-Quebec stance could harm Chrétien in the West, where the Reform Party of Canada is drawing support from disgruntled Liberals as well as Conservatives.
In July, Chrétien suggested a moratorium of
up to five years on further constitutional discussions, but he failed to address the moratorium’s implications for the promised Quebec referendum on that province’s future. Said N.W.T. Liberal MP Ethel Blondín, who served on the Dobbie-Beaudoin parliamentary committee on constitutional reform: “I think the whole thing is quite sensitive for every party—there could be a tendency, if people were not careful, for the debate to become highly factionalized.”
Benefit: In addition, if the Mulroney government fails to conclude a deal that is acceptable to Canadians, opposition parties stand to benefit from not having been part of the process. For their part, NDP strategists are convinced that Canadians see the economy, trade and unemployment as the major issues of the day. Even so, McLaughlin, for one, is clearly frustrated by her exclusion from the current constitutional process. Several months ago, she says, she asked an adviser to Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark if she could participate in the talks. “I never received an answer,” she declared. As a result, the NDP leader has been forced to consult her provincial and territorial counterparts—including Nova Scotia NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, invited by Premier Donald Cameron to attend the Ottawa negotiations—in order to keep up with the latest developments. Said McLaughlin: “Here I am calling Alexa to find out what’s going on, which is just silly.”
But with a general election and a possible national referendum on the horizon, both leaders are clearly warming up their rhetorical skills. And Chrétien revealed last week that he had sent Mulroney a three-page private letter just before the talks opened on Tuesday, urging the Prime Minister, among other things, to uphold the Canadian principle of linguistic duality. More importantly, the letter, made public by Chrétien’s office later in the week, also demanded that the federal government hold a national referendum on any new deal. “Canadians,” Chrétien wrote, “want to decide for themselves.” However silent he may have been, Chrétien, like McLaughlin, will clearly become more vocal in the months to come.
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