THE NATION'S BUSINESS

The sudden rise of the Charest Liberals

Some rebellious Grits think Jean Chrétien is beginning to sound as unconvincing as Kim Campbell trying to explain the deficit

Peter C. Newman November 13 1995
THE NATION'S BUSINESS

The sudden rise of the Charest Liberals

Some rebellious Grits think Jean Chrétien is beginning to sound as unconvincing as Kim Campbell trying to explain the deficit

Peter C. Newman November 13 1995

The sudden rise of the Charest Liberals

THE NATION'S BUSINESS

Some rebellious Grits think Jean Chrétien is beginning to sound as unconvincing as Kim Campbell trying to explain the deficit

PETER C. NEWMAN

Last Wednesday evening, just as Toronto’s Liberal pooh-bahs were gathering for what they annually promote as “the largest political dinner in Canadian history” (2,400 people at $500 a plate—half of it tax deductible), another more significant and much more private get-together was taking place only a few blocks away.

That one was held on the 54th floor of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, and it was also attended by some of the most significant Grits in the land, who also happen to be CEOs of some of Bay Street’s largest firms. They came to hear Tory Leader Jean Charest, fresh from the Quebec referendum campaign trail, who spoke to the group earnestly about the precarnusness of the Quebec situation. The most moving moment came after Charest told the hushed room: “You know, if I had behaved like Preston Manning, the referendum would have been lost.”

“God damn right,” stage-whispered one of the feistier corporate paladins. “I’m never shopping at Eaton’s again.” (The reference was to the persistent, enthusiastic personal support of Manning by Fred Eaton, once a staunch Tory, and as a former high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the recipient of the party’s most prestigious patronage plum.)

The private gathering was not unique. Leading Liberals are meeting in living rooms and clubs across the country to compare notes on how to save the country—an enterprise that for them amounts to saving the Liberal party, since neither entity can exist without a strong base in Quebec. (In truth, they don’t perceive much difference between the party and the country, since for them, any Canadian future without a dominant Liberal presence would be no future at all.)

It would be a gross exaggeration to report that these Grits are staging a coup against “that nice Mr. Chrétien.” They are not. But for the first time since he took office in 1993,

Chrétien’s leadership is being seriously questioned, and the derogatory label of being “yesterday’s man” has been revived. His critics maintain that the referendum crisis was Chrétien’s first real test, and that he failed it miserably. The affection is still there, but so is the realization that Chrétien’s rhetoric and policy orientation are inadequate for the task ahead.

In contrast, many of the party’s bigwigs recognize in Charest the style of leadership they need. Alone on the No side, the Tory leader emerged from the Quebec referendum with an expanded reputation. The Liberals are well aware that Charest would never consider crossing the floor of the Commons to sit as a cabinet minister, but they hold him up increasingly as an example of the style of leadership they lack. In their eyes, Charest possesses the range to project emotional feelings about his country without sounding mushy, and at least gives the strong impression that he knows where he is headed. In contrast, partly because his aides reduced him during the referendum campaign to reading from a prepared text, Chrétien sounded about as convincing as Kim

Campbell trying to explain the deficit.

Chrétien went into the campaign feeling so smug and arrogant that he was quite content to sit it out until the last two weeks. He then moved overnight from complacency to desperation, managing to appear uncomfortable and inadequate in both roles. His last-minute conversion to granting the province some indefinable distinct-society status was meaningless, except that it drastically reduced his credibility. With the possible exceptions of New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and Nova Scotia’s John Savage, none of the current crop of provincial premiers intends to endorse a distinctsociety clause in the Constitution. (They’re much more interested in persuading Ottawa that it could save the equivalent of its proposed $7-billion cuts in transfer payments by instead withdrawing from areas of provincial jurisdiction.)

Distinct society remains a nonstarter for another very good reason: Quebec’s sovereigntists aren’t the slightest bit interested in supporting such a move. “I don’t want a distinct society,” Jacques Parizeau has repeatedly maintained. “I want a country.” His successor, whether it’s a reluctant Lucien Bouchard or an eager Bernard Landry, will push the same view.

One example short of outright independence that might keep the country together is the Swiss model of government. That tiny, landlocked European democracy—it’s smaller than Nova Scotia—is devoid of any uniting language, religion or ethnic heritage. A smoothly functioning federation of 23 cantons, which operate almost as independent republics and in turn consist of about 3,000 largely autonomous communes—towns and cities where most of the population lives. The federal government’s powers are limited to administering law, defence, transportation, foreign policy, customs and the country’s monetary system, but sovereign power rests directly with the people, who vote several times a year on major policy issues in national or local referendums. Deputies to the National Council are elected by proportional representation, while an upper house of parliament consists of representatives from each of the cantons. The country’s constitution dates back to a document signed in 1291 by its three original cantons.

Of course we aren’t Swiss, and it’s much easier to be highly decentralized in a postagestamp country like theirs than in a continent disguised as a nation, like ours. But only by searching out such radical new approaches does Canada have a hope of surviving.

There comes a point when national institutions simply can’t be fixed any longer; they have to be replaced. There’s not much wrong in spinning off federal powers to the provinces. That takes government closer to the people, and the ultimate authority these days doesn’t rest with nation-states any longer anyway.

Everything has gone global. We’re all McLuhan’s children now.