Jean Chrétien intends to govern, but it may be a rough ride
Say this for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien: even after 11 election campaigns and a political career extending over 34 years, few things restore the bounce in his step as much as victory.
Throughout the 36-day federal campaign, Chrétien appeared listless, tired—occasionally grumpy.
During his election night victory speech, he seemed little better.
But by the end of last week, despite a round-the-clock schedule that included bidding farewell to his old cabinet and planning a new one, the 63-year-old Chrétien looked energetic, at ease—yet surprisingly matter-of-fact about his re-election.
In fact, said Chrétien during a 45minute interview with Maclean’s, | he feels little of the emotion that he experienced when he first became prime minister in 1993 (page 20). ‘To be elected the second time,” said Chrétien, “is less exciting than to win the first time as prime minister.”
Unlike the busy, electrically charged atmosphere that descended upon Ottawa with the Liberals’ 1993 victory, the post-election aftermath this time was much more calm—with a palpable air of business as usual. On the international front, the Canadian dollar barely budged on money markets, and Chrétien continued with plans to attend the annual Group of Seven economic summit in Denver later this month. He also received congratulatory calls from several international leaders, including U. S. President Bill Clinton and Great Britain’s newly minted prime minister, Tony Blair. On the domestic side, Chrétien faced some predictable tasks. He met for a last time
with his outgoing cabinet—including defeated Defence Minister Doug Young and Health Minister David Dingwall, both from Atlantic Canada—and prepared to announce his new cabinet this week. The biggest challenges will include trying to arrange adequate representation from the Atlantic provinces—where the party won only 11 of 32 seats—and, quite likely, finding new portfolios for such high-profile figures as Justice Minister Allan Rock and Natural Resources Minister Anne McLellan.
Other tasks are longer-term, and less clear-cut. They include trying to govern effectively with a razor-thin majority—155 of 301 seats—in a House of Commons that is sharply divided along regional, linguistic and ideological lines. Within the Liberal party, there are also intense arguments over what the government should do once it achieves a balanced budget—a target that could be within reach as early as next year. And meanwhile, the Prime Minister will likely add some new faces to his personal staff of advisers as part of efforts to put to rest speculation—and some hopes—among Liberals that he will not serve out his full term.
Some Liberals have privately called for Chrétien to oust some of his closest staff members, such as his longtime policy adviser Eddie Goldenberg. They argue that Goldenberg, in particular, has been overzealous in guarding access to the Prime Minister. But Chrétien is near-certain not to do so. Said one friend of both Goldenberg and Chrétien: “People often blame Eddie for things because it is more convenient than blaming the Prime Minister directly. But the reality is that Eddie is one of the only people who will argue directly with him.” There will, however, be efforts to broaden Chrétien’s largely Quebec-based circle by adding western advisers, and at least one Ontarian, who is likeg ly to be longtime Liberal organizer Gordon 2 Ashworth. And on the issue of his own fuI ture, the Prime Minister is unequivocal. “I | have been given a mandate,” he said, “so I S will stay prime minister and leader of the I party during the [next] term.”
For now, all Liberals publicly agree. But had Chrétien failed to win a majority, many senior Liberals privately say he would have faced heavy pressure to step down within two years—by which time another election would have been likely. Now, he has won breathing room. “The Prime Minister has clearly demonstrated that he has the right to stay as long as he wants, with the full support of all Liberals,” says Michael Robinson, a senior strategist who was Finance Minister Paul Martin’s campaign manager during his 1990 leadership bid against Chrétien. Similarly, says Stephen LeDrew, president of the Ontario wing of the party: “Tie Prime Minister is not going to be hobbled [by the slim majority], He is not going—and there is not going to be a call for him to go.” Despite that, few Liberals expect Chrétien to stay in office past the year 2000. And many agree that those vows of support will evaporate swiftly if Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard calls a sovereignty referendum before that time.
That possibility now seems much less likely than it did before the election campaign began. A key reason is the poor showing of the Bloc Québécois. Despite brave claims to the contrary, the Bloc’s performance was a major disappointment for sovereigntists. In 1993, the party took 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats. This time, it took 44 seats, and won only 38 per cent of the Quebec vote. The latter figure was crucial, because anything less than 42 per cent meant that the BQ, under leader Gilles Duceppe, failed in its goal of winning the support of half of the province’s francophones. That was the worst showing by any pro-sovereignty party at the federal or provincial level since 1973, and led to speculation that Bouchard will delay plans for another referendum—perhaps into the next millennium. ‘There is absolutely no enthusiasm in Quebec for a referendum anytime in the near future,” said John Parisella, a sometime adviser to Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson and former chief of staff to Robert Bourassa. “And Mr. Bouchard is simply too smart a politician not to be aware of that—and of the consequences if he called another referendum, and lost.”
This fall, the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule on a federal government challenge to Quebec’s self-declared right to unilaterally declare independence. If the court rules in favor of Ottawa, as many observes think likely, it would give Bouchard a reason to call a provincial election. But Bouchard, who took over as premier from Jacques Parizeau in early 1996, said last week that he has no plans to call an election soon—and many observers think the BQ’s disappointing showing is a key factor in that decision. “I think [the election result] shows to the sovereignty movement that motivating their supporters is not something that will be automatic,” said Christian Bourque, a Montreal-based pollster with the Angus Reid Group.
Former Bloc MP Jean Lapierre, now a Montreal radio talk-show host, called the Bloc’s results “a setback” for the movement because the BQ made Quebec’s constitutional future the key issue of its campaign. And despite suggestions that the Reform party will stoke anti-Quebec sentiments in the rest of Canada—in turn reviving sovereigntist passions in Quebec—not everyone agrees. Said Lapierre, referring to the last crop of elected Reformers: “I can’t remember an outrageous statement that made Quebecers go to the barricades.” All of that makes Duceppe’s hold on his party tenuous at best. That is not the case for Reform’s Preston Manning and the New Democratic Party’s Alexa McDonough. Manning, whose leadership was sometimes questioned in the run-up to the campaign, has clearly consolidated his position. His 10-year-old party emerged with 60 seats and now forms the country’s official Opposition. He vowed last week to continue taking a hard line on such issues as Quebec separation, federal government spending and justice issues. McDonough, whose party revived itself from near-obliteration to win 21 seats, hopes the presence of the NDP, and the government’s tiny majority, will drive the Liberals back to their more traditional left-leaning roots.
The outlook is much less rosy for the Progressive Conservatives. Tory Leader Jean Charest established himself in the election campaign as one of the country’s most popular leaders, according to a series of opinion polls—and his name is continually on top of the wish list of Quebec provincial Liberals as the party’s next leader. But the Tories’ overall outlook is much less positive: some senior officials said before the election that the party would have to win at least 50 seats to reassert itself as a national force. Now, despite winning almost exactly as many votes as Reform, the Tories have 40 fewer seats—a total of 20—and some right-wingers, including Ontario’s Conservative Premier Mike Harris, have called for a federal merger between the Tories and Reform. Charest and other key Tories rejected that notion—indeed, Charest refused to return Harris’ calls last week—but Manning suggested that many grassroots Conservatives are now prepared to move to his party.
There is some evidence that has already happened, particularly in Western Canada.
All those disputes and divisions, of course, are good news for the Liberals, who are busy reclaiming their traditional middle ground.
Said Chrétien: “I control the centre”—which is exactly where he says he likes to be. Still, the rise of the NDP, and the concurrent fall of the Liberals in the Atlantic provinces, lend ammunition to many Liberal backbenchers who bridled during the last mandate at the government’s single-minded focus on spending cuts.
Now, with a balanced budget within reach, the party faces intense debate over what to do after that is achieved. There are three different options—cutting taxes, increasing spending on social programs, or using any future surplus to pay down the national debt, which now totals $600 billion. So far, Chrétien has said he would consider all three, but has ducked giving a precise answer. But there are signs that Martin, a deficit hawk, faces renewed pressure for increased spending from left-leaning ministers. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, in fact, called last week for the government to spend more money in some areas, such as social programs. There is wide support in caucus for such measures—but less among Chrétien’s advisers. Said David Smith, a Toronto lawyer and key Chrétien political adviser, “There has to be better listening and sensitivity, but I don’t think you can go on a spending spree.” And observed Chrétien: ‘We did not try to buy votes during the campaign.”
Still, some Liberals point to the $6.5 billion in spending that the party announced immediately prior to the campaign as proof that Chrétien still believes, at least in part, that the way to Canadians’ hearts is through the government’s pocketbook. If that is the case,
Martin will have to be adamant on behalf of continued restrictions on spending. According to one friend, those close to Martin “are telling him that he has to make clear he will not stay in Finance if the [deficit] targets are not acceptable to him—and I think he understands that his credibility rests on that.” Business leaders, meanwhile, say they are optimistic that the heavy right-wing presence in the House of Commons—with Reform and the Tories holding more than a quarter of the total seats—will demonstrate public support for such efforts. Said Thomas D’Aquino, the president of the Business Council on National Issues: “If you take the Reform, Liberal and Conservative votes, that makes up a very, very significant majority of the popular vote. And those three parties are all driven by a high sense of fiscal responsibility.”
But there remains the need to reconcile the diverse interests of the country’s regions. Most Liberals, including Chrétien, acknowledge that the reason they lost so much support in the Atlantic provinces was their cuts to social programs in an area with a long tradition of dependence on government. On the other hand, the Liberals were criticized in Western Canada for, among other things, lacking a
proper commitment to reducing spending, taxes and the size of government. The dilemma, then, is that any move to either cut or increase spending will shore up support in one end of the country—and deplete it in the other.
That only helps to set the stage for what is likely to be the most heated battle in the new Parliament—between the Liberals and Reform. After Reform ran campaign ads suggesting that it was time for a non-Quebecer to lead the country, a furious Chrétien went out of his way after the election to criticize Manning and his party. “It was not on economic policy that we were defeated in the West,” said Chrétien. “Mr. Manning said at the beginning of the campaign that it was going to be dirty—I know now what he meant.” Chrétien said he is prepared to reach out to Charest and McDonough because “they don’t base their campaigns on disunity.” And, he said, Manning’s “anti-Quebec” message ultimately worked against him in Ontario, where Liberal polls indicated that Reform was poised to win five seats in the final week of the campaign. “There were some areas in Ontario where we could have lost seats to Reform,” said Chrétien. “In the last three days, it reversed.” For now, Chrétien insists that he will lead « with the same confidence that he did when he I had a much larger majority. And he dismisses 1 suggestions in the media that his ability to I govern decisively has been sharply diminished by his reduced number of seats—and the fact £ that he won only 38 per cent of the popular vote. I Instead, Chrétien, whose understanding of history is crystal clear when the specific topic is Liberal politics, notes that the last two Liberal prime ministers to win back-to-back majorities were Louis Saint-Laurent in 1953 and William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1945—and both men also had reduced majorities. Said Chrétien: “The press wrote as if I had lost, but in politics, it is the number of seats in the House that matters.” Even after so many years in politics, Chrétien says he is often underestimated by both friends and foes—and is comfortable with that. It is, said Chrétien, “one of the reasons I have lasted so long.” If he decides to stay on longer than others within his own party might wish, it is a quality that prospective challengers would do well to remember.