CANADA

Election realpolitik

The Liberals are now letting their day-to-day governing be governed by thoughts of the next campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 4 1996
CANADA

Election realpolitik

The Liberals are now letting their day-to-day governing be governed by thoughts of the next campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 4 1996

Election realpolitik

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

The Liberals are now letting their day-to-day governing be governed by thoughts of the next campaign

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

And now, for those who think that politics and logic should have at least a casual acquaintance with each other, consider the federal Liberal government of Canada. On the one hand, it recently moved with alacrity to pass legislation declaring Quebec a “distinct society” and granting regional vetoes over constitutional change. Although polls showed that most Canadians opposed such steps, he moved swiftly, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said, because he promised to do so during the Quebec referendum campaign, and a promise is a promise. And so it is, unless the promise is made to gays and lesbians—in which case it can be postponed indefinitely. That is what happened to the liberals’ commitment to entrench protection against sexual discrimination in the Human Rights Act. Now, in the face of strong protests from some Liberal backbenchers, Chrétien says that measure will be postponed—until, say, some time after the next election.

For students of realpolitik, there are several lessons to be drawn from the above. One is that governments should debate the consequences of policies before, rather than after, they make promises, or they should not make them at all. Another is that a promise is only as strong as the political strength of the group it is intended to please. Perhaps gays and lesbians, if they really want to have their way, should threaten to secede from Canada, or demand recognition as a distinct society.

All of which is to say, as this week’s speech from the throne and the upcoming federal budget will make more clear, that the Liberals are now letting their day-today governing be governed by thoughts of the next federal election. That process began with the Jan. 25 cabinet shuffle, with a series of small nods to the respective right and left wings of the party. The gay rights legislation is being postponed, Chrétien told some associates, because he wants to provide solace to more rightwing rural Ontario MPs, who are still upset over the passage of tough gun-control legislation last year. Perhaps it is easier to discuss human rights abroad rather than at home: one sop for the left is placing Lloyd Axworthy in charge of the foreign

affairs department. Since doing so, Axworthy has met almost exclusively with members of nongovernmental organizations, emphasized his preoccupation with human-rights issues to anyone who will listen, and astonished even some fellow Liberals by asking 13-year-old child-rights activist Craig Kielburger to become a special adviser. But despite those gestures, and Axworthy’s best intentions, the government’s real priority will continue to be trade.

Similarly, the Liberals will continue to talk informally about a Plan A and Plan B for Quebec, which is a more formal way of saying that they, like many anglophone Canadians, cannot decide whether people in that province should be spanked or seduced. Typically, they are trying to do both, by trash-talking the province some days while discussing the viability of Quebec partition, and murmuring about the need for conciliatory gestures on others. Perhaps a more significant problem is federal Liberal meddling in the affairs of their provincial counterparts in Quebec— where they spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about how nice it would be to see Conservative Leader Jean Charest replace Daniel Johnson as head of the provincial Liberals. They should not waste their energy: privately, Quebec Liberals say that Johnson has until June at the latest to reassert his control over the party, or he will face a potential mutiny.

Along with Liberals, another group is fixated by thoughts of the next federal election. Parti Québécois strategists say Premier Lucien Bouchard is determined to wait until after a federal vote before holding another referendum on sovereignty. Péquistes are convinced that their most surefire chance of success lies in giving the rest of Canada enough time to discuss new formulas for constitutional change—which, they are certain, will end in failure. Then, after a federal election marked by slanging matches between the Liberals and Reform, Bouchard would call his own election, and a referendum shortly after. By waiting that long, says one PQ caucus member, “we do nothing—and still get what we want.” That is a strategy the federal Liberals understand—sometimes too well.