CANADA

Skating on thin ice

Ottawa’s opposition parties are in disarray

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 16 1996
CANADA

Skating on thin ice

Ottawa’s opposition parties are in disarray

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 16 1996

Skating on thin ice

CANADA

Ottawa’s opposition parties are in disarray

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

The decor is nondescript, the coffee seldom of recent vintage and the cuisine—items like cellophane-wrapped sandwiches— often tasteless and barely digestible. But the ground-floor cafeteria in the West Block building on Parliament Hill, long the haunt of early risers in the federal government, has also been the epicentre of many political earthquakes. In the early 1980s, a group of Conservative MPs and hangers-on met there regularly to plot the overthrow of then-leader Joe Clark and the rise of his successor, Brian Mulroney. Later in the same decade, Liberal MPs close to Jean Chrétien gathered every morning to vent their unhappiness with John Turner’s leadership. Last week, the Curse of the Cafeteria struck again. For one of the few times since their election in 1993, more than a dozen Bloc Québécois MPs showed up.

They gathered at three different tables, gesturing excitedly and speaking in hushed tones. Shortly after, at an 8:30 a.m. caucus meeting, their embattled leader, Michel Gauthier, resigned.

Politics, as Chrétien once mused, “is made of this thrill: when you skate on thin ice, you never know where there will be a hole.” Those who slip in are often pushed. In Gauthier’s case, as he acknowledged to reporters after resigning, the Bloc leader was driven from office by a divided caucus grown increasingly unhappy with its own performance and prospects for re-election. His departure—only nine months after he reluctantly took the job—illustrates just how swiftly the profession of politics now consumes those perceived as losers.

It has seldom been easy to be an opposition politician, but it may never have been harder, or more frustrating, than it is in Ottawa today. With a general election appearing likely this spring, according to Liberal

sources, nothing seems to dent Prime Minister Chrétien’s remarkable and enduring popularity. His government has sailed through controversies on everything from the Goods and Services Tax to the near loss of the Quebec referendum—and still its popularity in the polls stands at well over 50 per cent.

Part of the reason is that Chrétien, with his combination of modest manner and wiles born of close to three decades in elected politics, has ducked opposition attacks with the ease of an experienced boxer. And neither of the two principal opposition parties, the Bloc and the Reform party, has a panCanadian voice: the Bloc speaks only for Quebec, while Reform has only one seat east of Manitoba. Then, there are the growing pains of two parties that had no official voice in the House of Commons before 1993. Only one Reform MP, Deborah Grey, has any previous experience in Parliament, and only five Bloc MPs were not rookies when they were elected in the same year. That inexperience has led to public gaffes and private divisions in each party. At the same time, in an era of budget cuts and shrinking government services, Canadians have less direct interest in politics than they once had—and a much higher degree of cynicism.

In the past, political leaders could lose several elections before their followers became seriously restless. Former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, for example, lost three elections before stepping down, while New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent lost four. By contrast, Gauthier did not even contest one. But his decision to resign came in the wake of public opinion polls that showed the BQ’s popularity dropping. Other polls showed that more Quebecers could identify the unilingually English Preston Manning than Gauthier.

But for political success, it may be better for a leader to be unknown than unloved. Despite Gauthier’s low profile, the Bloc’s support is still within five points of its peak under Lucien Bouchard, and most political analysts in Quebec say the party is virtually certain to win at least 40 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the next election. Similarly, New Democratic Party Leader Alexa McDonough passes largely unnoticed, but her party is presently at its highest standing in the polls since the 1993 election.

By contrast, Manning is well-known— perhaps to a fault. He is a staple for caricature on hit television programs such as This Hour Has 22Minutes, but his party is less popular now than it was in 1993.

Ditto for Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest, who is recognized everywhere. In his own province of Que bec, though, that is unlikely to translate into any electoral gains. A senior Tory organizer in Montreal said last week that the party will “consider it a miracle if we win anything more than Jean’s own seat here in the next election.”

But Manning and Charest both have a weapon that Gauthier lacked: absolute control over their parties. In Charest’s case, he is well-liked by rankand-file members—and no one else of sufficient profile wants the job. Manning, whose reserved private manner has made him few close friends in the party, is nonetheless respected for his zeal in founding Reform and shaping its principles. Still, if the party fares poorly in the next election, says B.C. Reform MP Keith Martin: “The leadership will be up for review immediately—no question about it.”

The reality, as the Bloc’s Gauthier discovered too late, is that when the going gets tough, the tough need to ride herd on their caucus—or face the consequences. Gauthier failed to inspire either fear or affection among caucus colleagues. Some members muttered that the leader, who represents the rural riding of Roberval, was so out of touch in Montreal that “he wouldn’t know how to find Ste. Catherine Street [the city’s busiest thoroughfare].” Others privately described him as unwilling to put in the hours necessary for the job; some, even unilingual francophones, made fun of his poor English.

‘To do a proper job of leading the Bloc, it is essential to be fluent in English in order to communicate with the rest of Canada, and to be comfortable around Montreal,” said Concordia University political scientist Guy Lachapelle, who has close ties with the sovereignty movement. “Gauthier had neither.” The list of those who may succeed Gauthier now features people with those qualities, as well as a sufficiently high public profile to attract interest. Some of the potential candidates include sitting Bloc MPs Gilles Duceppe and Francine Lalonde, and Bloc strategist and constitutional lawyer Daniel Turp. Of those, Turp is the candidate that the rest of the country would likely find the

most palatable. An elegant 41-year-old, the University of Montreal professor favors bow ties, lives in Westmount, is married to an anglophone from Alberta and speaks almost flawless English. Turp told Maclean’s last week that he is “reflecting long and hard” about whether to run, but close friends suggest that he will. Other potential candidates include former longtime Tory cabinet minister Marcel Masse, whose conversion to sovereignty came only after his party lost the last election.

A long shot, but the most interesting possibility, is former Quebec premier Jacques

Parizeau. Some friends say Parizeau is tempted by the job. As leader of the Bloc, he would become a beacon for hardline separatists who don’t want to keep any ties with the rest of Canada and suspect Bouchard of being a closet federalist. In addition, Parizeau’s espousal of social-democratic principles puts him further at odds with Bouchard, who is pursuing a conservative fiscal agenda that cuts social spending. One sovereigntist with close ties to Bouchard said the Quebec premier “is basically horrified” by the possibility of a Parizeau candidacy.

Many of the elements that fuelled discontent among Bloc members will strike a responsive chord among politicians of all stripes. Unlike a member of the governing party, an opposition MP cannot hope for elevation to cabinet or play a direct role in the formulation of policy. “As an opposition MP, we have influence, but we have no power,” says Edmonton-area MP Ian McClelland of the Reform party.

Another frustration for opposition MPs is that they can only hope to see their ideas implemented in the near future if the governing Liberals adopt them. That, argues Reform MP Stephen Harper, is precisely what has happened in such areas of Reform concern as deficit reduction, a tougher stance on crime and new controls on immigration. “Success in our case depends on the government taking over your political agenda,” says Harper.

Harper, 37, who decided not to run for reelection after the birth of a son this year, says that many politicians are increasingly aware of the limitations their profession places on the rest of their lives. To be 37 and have four years of elected politics behind you is useful for other fields,” says Harper. ‘To be 47 and have 14 years behind you is not. A lot of what you learn in politics is simply useless information for other fields.”

That may be one reason why almost a « quarter of both the Bloc and Reform cau1 cuses are not planning to run for re-elec| tion. Few people want to make a career £ of a profession that inspires so much I cynicism. “I came to Ottawa with very I few illusions, and I leave with that unchanged,” says Harper dryly. That frustration on the opposition side is obviously good news for the Liberals, and Chrétien. Informed of Gauthier’s resignation last week, the Prime Minister initially responded cautiously by saying he was “sorry” for him, but then added: “A party that has its third leader in one year is generally good for the other parties.” The infighting within the Bloc and Reform parties brings to mind a popular maxim in the Middle East—that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. By that measure, the Liberals presently have all the friends they need on the opposition benches.

LUKE FISHER