COVER

CHRETIEN'S CLOSE SHAVE

The Prime Minister has one last chance to prove his worth

Peter C. Newman November 6 1995
COVER

CHRETIEN'S CLOSE SHAVE

The Prime Minister has one last chance to prove his worth

Peter C. Newman November 6 1995

CHRETIEN'S CLOSE SHAVE

COVER

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

The Prime Minister has one last chance to prove his worth

The referendum vote, indecisive as it was, had one clear result: the status quo is dead.

It would be tragic to dismiss the razor-thin majority of the federalist forces as a call to do nothing. It is true that we have avoided the agony of a Yes victory, but that does not mean we will not suffer the pain of having to drastically alter a system that caused nearly half the voters of the nation’s second-most populous province to reject their country.

The reason for the surge of separatist power was based not as much on Lucien Bouchard’s magic as on Jean Chrétien’s failure to make the status quo inspiring. By defending nothing more noble or inspiring than leaving ® ® il.

things as they were, the Prime Minister came dangerously close to fulfilling one of the oldest laws of politics: that people seldom vote for what they already have. The federalists won despite their strategic errors and policy misapprehensions.

When the campaign began, it was there for the federalists to lose, and they almost did. That they squeaked by was due mainly to the emotional impact of ordinary Canadians disobeying Chrétien’s instructions to stay out of the referendum battle and showing ordinary Quebecers that they cared and didn’t want them to leave.

At the same time, nearly half of Quebec’s voters endorsed a separatist platform that remains the gospel of the government that will continue in charge of Quebec’s affairs until 1999. By turning over his leadership of the Yes forces to Bouchard in mid-campaign, Jacques Parizeau amply demonstrated that he is a True Believer, that he will stop at nothing to make his dream come true, even at the cost of his pride and ego. That remains true, as does his unquestionable power to cause endless mischief in the conduct of the nation’s affairs over the next four years.

To pretend for a moment that Quebec voted to preserve things as they are would be to dangerously misread the vote. Despite all of the efforts to make French Canada feel at home in the rest of the country, Quebecers have rejected the argument that French culture can be protected by an English-Canadian government—even if it is led by a Québécois. They now know that they must nurture their own way of life, and that the hope for constitutional change is, if not dead, at least dormant.

The No campaign’s low point occurred on Oct. 23, when Clyde Wells, whose 1990 decision to kill the Meech Lake accord by not allowing his own legislature to vote on the deal, came out against “ever” granting Quebec the distinctiveness it has so long sought. The timing of his intervention was stupid; it could have been tragic. He made it clear that

any effort by the Ottawa government to satisfy Quebec’s constitutional aspirations will fail, because such an effort will never gain unanimous support.

The political lesson that has emerged from this referendum is not new. The same arrogance of the powerful that helped defeat the Meech and Charlottetown accords, that sank Kim Campbell and Lyn McLeod, that prevented Rogers Cable executives from realizing what was going on with their customers—everything that the Establishment’s gurus advised—turned out to be counterproductive. The complacency that set in among Ottawa’s No team almost lost us our country.

We cannot bet the farm with these people in charge, ever again. What marks a democracy is that leaders must be accountable. Jean Chrétien has one more chance to prove that he can actually do something, instead of merely occupying an office that has a sign, “Prime Minister of Canada,” on its door.

The first step will be to re-examine the true dimensions of his own mandate. While Chrétien has been basking in the warm, comfortable glow of public favor ever since his election two years ago, he has done nothing to deserve his high ratings. Sometimes, just being there is not enough—especially when you’re supposed to be leading a country into the next century. Chrétien seems never to have taken account of the fact that while he did win a majority mandate in 1993, fully one-third of Canadians cast their fates to the wind by voting for Preston Manning’s Reformers or Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois. Both movements were—and are—passionately opposed to the Liberal party’s traditionally opportunistic populism.

To head off the next referendum—and the separatists have to change the minds of less than 30,000 voters to win it—the Prime Minister will have to grab the initiative, if not the policies, of a Ralph Klein or a Mike Harris. He must become a political activist, a quality that one would think tallies with his job description. The opportunity will arise with the 1997 constitutional review, and those Canadians who object to such exercises now know the price of ignoring them. If Canada outside Quebec continues to ignore the province’s dreams and aspirations, there is now no doubt that next time around will truly be the country’s last chance.

Canada’s history of the past 10 years has been a retreat from faith in the country’s institutions, including the Red Cross, the monarchy, organized religion, the Grey Cup, and so on. What the referendum was really about was a test of how deeply Quebecers believe in the ultimate Canadian institution, Canada itself.

Those politicians whose sense of smugness survived the referendum, just because the No campaign happened to come up with a narrow win, will be betraying their mandate to govern. The indisputable fact is that the burden of proof has now shifted from the Yes camp to the No camp.

It is up to those of us who passionately believe in this country, as I do, to prove to our fellow Canadians in Quebec that we have common cause, and that the future belongs to all of us.

Rebecca West, my favorite British essayist, got it right when she wrote that “there is nothing rarer than a man who can be trusted never to throw away happiness, however eagerly he may grasp it.” That’s the way it is with countries. You don’t realize the value of your home country until you almost lose it.

We came too damn close last Monday night. To most of the earth’s people, Canada appears blessed with the mandate of heaven. Let’s celebrate that we have been granted one more chance to make it so.