Byelection entrails

Pierre Pettigrew, a man of champagne tastes, must win in a lunchbucket riding

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1996

Byelection entrails

Pierre Pettigrew, a man of champagne tastes, must win in a lunchbucket riding

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1996

Byelection entrails

Pierre Pettigrew, a man of champagne tastes, must win in a lunchbucket riding

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Democracy,

Winston Churchill said, “is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps, but additional conditions apply if you want to win a seat in the House of Commons for the Liberal Party of Canada. In that case, it is eminently preferable if you can a) bypass the entire messy nomination process by being designated as a candidate by the prime minister; b) run in a riding so safely, historically liberal that it renders the matter of holding a vote almost irrelevant; c) run in a byelection, rather than a general election, so that it is guaranteed you end up on the government side; and d) prove you are the ultimate blue-chip candidate by managing all of the above.

With six federal byelections coming up on March 25—two in Newfoundland, three in Quebec and one in Ontario—there are plenty of reminders that even within the same political party, democracy moves in varying forms. At the low end of the food chain, for example, is the benighted soul who will run—hopelessly—for Jean Chrétien’s party in Lucien Bouchard’s former riding of Lac-St-Jean. At the high end is the government’s new intergovernmental affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, who was given a nomination, a cabinet seat and an impossible-to-lose riding (Montreal’s StLaurent/Cartierville) as the ultimate jackpot. But for Liberals, the byelections also carry more subtle messages—and some of them are even relevant beyond the selfobsessed inner confines of Official Ottawa. Among them:

• In a cabinet of supposed equals, Finance Minister Paul Martin is more equal than others. The byelections are to take place three weeks after Martin is planning to table his budget during the first week of March, amid a groundswell of protest over the government’s standpat position on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). As many as 25 Liberal MPs may abstain or vote against the budget if the GST is not changed—and the issue could be enough to result in a Reform upset in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke North. But despite that, Martin will get his way, and the GST will not be changed

in this budget.

• Senator Pietro Rizzuto will not oversee the selection of Liberal candidates in Quebec in the next election. During the 1993 campaign, Rizzuto clashed with Chrétien’s senior adviser, Eddie Goldenberg, over the choice of candidates in ridings deemed winnable—and Rizzuto won. The result was a collection of largely lacklustre MPs whose chief virtue is often their loyalty to Rizzuto. Since then, the Liberals have needed three byelections to get candidates from Quebec considered “ministrable”— Dion, Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard and International Co-operation Minister Pierre Pettigrew. Next time, Goldenberg will prevail.

• Someone in the hierarchy of the Liberal party has a malicious streak—or a finely honed sense of humor. The elegant Pettigrew is a person of champagne tastes with the air of someone who never met an aristocrat he didn’t like. The riding in which he is running, Papineau/StMichel in northeast Montreal, is a lunch-bucket, beer-and-shot kind of place. For fans of TV sitcoms, picture Frasier Crane meeting The Simpsons and you see what door-to-door campaigning with Pettigrew will be like.

• The Liberals don’t care who forms Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. True, Chrétien said recently that he feels “sick” when he looks across the House of Commons at the pro-secessionist Bloc filling that role. But Reform and the Bloc are neck and neck in their seat count; if the Liberals really wanted Reform to supplant the Bloc, they would not have allowed a byelection in Papineau, where the Bloc lost in 1993 by fewer than 5,000 votes and has a real chance of winning. Similarly, if they were secretly happy with the Bloc, they would not have created a vacancy (through International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren’s resignation) in Etobicoke North, where Reform is running hard.

A lack of concern, after all, is how you can always tell a Liberal. Or, phrased another way, the real lesson of the byelections is a reminder that you can always tell a Liberal—but you can never tell him much.