To understand the latest chapter of the Canadian political melodrama, it may help to picture two of the principal players as clichéd characters in a bad marriage. Lucien Bouchard is the nagging, fault-finding finger-wagger, while Jean Chrétien suffers the verbal onslaught in pained, lip-biting silence. Bouchard campaigned on a promise to transform the House of Commons into a forum to debate Quebec sovereignty. Chrétien did the reverse, promising “never to talk about the Constitution.” That silence, says a Chrétien adviser, “is a commitment we plan to keep as long as possible.”
There are several compelling reasons to do so. The publicly acknowledged one is that Chrétien does not want to start talking about a referendum on sovereignty until—or unless— Premier Daniel Johnson loses the Quebec election, widely expected to be held on Sept 12; “We do not take for granted that the [Quebec] Liberals will lose,” Chrétien said recently.
But if the Prime Minister does not presume that, many of his advisers do. They cite other reasons for Chrétien to avoid the Quebec issue, at least for now. One is that Chrétien is a good orator but an indifferent debater. He suffers when in direct comparison to Bouchard, who is superior on both counts. A prolonged debate with Bouchard would hurt him in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois leader is already far more popular. It might hurt him even more in the rest of Canada, where people are tom between wanting him to vanquish Bouchard or simply to ignore him.
Another problem is that Chrétien does not want to be bullied into statements that might haunt him later. One example is Bouchard’s recent effort to force Chrétien to say he would abide by the results of a Quebec referendum, no matter what the result. But Chrétien will not do that—not, at the very least, until the question to be asked is known. And Liberals are more sensitive than they publicly admit to suggestions by Reform Leader Preston Manning that Chrétien, as a Quebecer, should not speak for Canada in negotiations with Quebec.
None of this means that Chrétien, who seldom ducks a political fight, finds silence either easy or golden. Occasionally, concedes an adviser, “we have to plead with him to hold his temper in check.” Several times recently, those efforts have failed, such as when Chrétien told the House of Commons that Bouchard was creating uncertainty about Canada around the world after the Bloc leader’s May visit to Paris. Chrétien, who spent much of last week attending ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, did not comment, while in Europe, on Bouchard’s latest remarks. Outside the Commons, as Chrétien conceded recently, he has no problem holding his tongue about Bouchard: other than their public clashes, the two men never speak to each other.
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