The agony and ecstasy of Campaign'97

Peter C. Newman May 5 1997

The agony and ecstasy of Campaign'97

Peter C. Newman May 5 1997

The agony and ecstasy of Campaign'97

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

In the tumble of events that characterize election campaigns, issues soon become obscure and political motives twisted. Party strategists genuinely believe, every precedent to the contrary, that they are deploying their political troops in lockstep, marching to victory. In truth, the process is almost totally out of their control, and every campaign takes on an unpredictable life of its own.

This time the fight is about making history.

History is defined by legacy. Jean Chrétien has been prime minister of Canada for more than 40 months, yet he has dropped no hints about how he wants to be remembered. (Having his wife drive off an assassin with a piece of Inuit sculpture? Starting a fistfight in Hull? Surviving the CBC’s town-hall forums?)

Every prime minister hears the distant echo of the future and governs as much for the history books as for the voters. In that context, John Diefenbaker gave us a bill of rights; Lester Pearson left behind medicare, a flag and a national pension plan; Pierre Trudeau willed Canadians the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Joe Clark lost some luggage; and Brian Mulroney endowed the country with the GST and free trade.

Jean Chrétien can certainly claim that under his government the back of the federal deficit was broken, but credit for that impressive accomplishment generally goes to Paul Martin. At any rate, it’s something of a negative accomplishment, compared to leaving behind some great act of statesmanship or impressive parliamentary legislation. (In fact, Chrétien does deserve much of the credit for putting our financial house in order, because Tory finance minister Michael Wilson wanted to balance the budget just as badly as Paul Martin, but never received support for the required expenditure cuts from Brian Mulroney.)

Chrétien’s other claim for historical recognition would, of course, be leading Canada intact through the next Quebec referendum. But that would merely leave Canada in the status quo situation of remaining the nation it was before all the fuss started. What Jean Chrétien needs is some brave new legislation or one of those magic defining moments that sometimes mark elections, so that he can perpetuate his name in the historical record, instead of merely filling the space between his predecessor and successor.

The election ought to focus his mind so that he stops giving off that distant cold and uncomprehending lunar glow that sometimes marks his discourse. What Chrétien ought not to do this time is what he insisted on doing in the 1993 campaign. In that election, every time he couldn’t think up an answer to a troubling question, the Liberal leader would hold up the red pamphlet of Liberal promises, and like a country pastor who gets into theological dif-

Jean Chrétien needs some brave new legislation or a magic defining moment to perpetuate his name in history

ficulties, begin to shout: “It’s in the book! It’s in the book!” (If used in the next few weeks, that tactic will merely remind voters that the 1993 Red Book promised to eliminate the GST.)

For Opposition Leader Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, the election is a much more clear-cut contest. His members have one grand objective: to be re-elected so they become eligible for lifetime parliamentary pensions. (It requires six years at bat to collect the loot. If the BQ members have their way, Quebec will be independent by the time the next Canadian election rolls around. Only if they win their seats in June can they continue trying to tear the country apart, and yet have a claim on that same country’s treasury to finance their retirement. Only in Canada.)

For Preston Manning, it may be his last big chance. No matter how often Manning repeats that the Reform party is all about “the founding of a New Canada,” it’s really about trying to perpetuate a very Old Canada. The Reform party’s version of Canada dates back to the turn of the century when immigrants, mostly from the United Kingdom and northern Europe, settled on the Canadian plains. That time is long gone, but what remains in the Reformers’ memory bank is that this was a time when white Protestants were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. And what Reform is really about is an anguished cry of protest that this is no longer true, and that it ought to be true again.

For the New Democrats, the election will be an exercise in trying to regain their grip as the conscience of Canada, without ever having to govern it. Faced with the neocon takeover of Ontario and Alberta, as well as most of the nation’s daily press, there ought to be plenty of room for the socialists to grow. But their leader, Alexa McDonough, has yet to prove that she will be a serious factor in the campaign.

Jean Charest goes into the election with the highest potential for growth. Above all, he is new. It was only two years ago, fighting in the trenches against Lucien Bouchard in the Quebec referendum, that Charest proved his worth. This is a man who believes in his mission and isn’t in politics merely to advance his career.

The election comes at an opportune moment. Nothing much is left on the Liberal agenda. The governing party needs an election to renew its energies and initiatives. The Tories can not go on languishing in the wilderness; they need to know if they’re headed for a return to office, or oblivion. The Reformers face a similar dilemma. Will Presto lead them beyond the pale, or into the promised land? The NDP needs merely to survive.

Out of the campaign will hopefully emerge a brand new coalition of political forces, ready to face the next, and perhaps final Quebec referendum. It’s that fight that will really set Canada’s future.

Meanwhile, let the games begin.