Backstage

The Millennium Factor

Almost everything that happens in federal politics in the coming year will be colored by speculation about Chrétien’s future

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 12 1998
Backstage

The Millennium Factor

Almost everything that happens in federal politics in the coming year will be colored by speculation about Chrétien’s future

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 12 1998

The Millennium Factor

Almost everything that happens in federal politics in the coming year will be colored by speculation about Chrétien’s future

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

In the ground-floor drawing room on the northwest corner of 24 Sussex Drive, there sits an understated picture that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien—an art lover of very discerning taste—is fond of calling “my stolen masterpiece.” An oil painting by the 19th-century artist Cornelius Krieghoff depicts a location at Shawinigan Falls near where the teenaged Chrétien used to walk with his future wife, Aline. Chrétien, while visiting the governor general’s residence at Rideau Hall several years ago, spotted the painting and decided at once to borrow it. When one of the security personnel protested that Chrétien should first obtain permission, the Prime Minister smiled thinly at the man, suggested that he report the painting “stolen” if need be, and then took it home immediately.

That anecdote suggests several lessons that all, in various ways, reflect Chrétien’s steelier side. One is that, despite his self-professed preference for caution and prudence in politics, he moves swiftly and decisively once he has made up his mind. Another lesson is that once Chrétien decides to take action, he has little patience or tolerance for those who let ideology stand in the way of what must be done.

Those qualities of Chrétien’s take on particular significance because almost everything that happens in federal politics in the coming year will be colored by speculation over the Prime Minister’s political future— and the manner in which he reacts to it. On the surface, there is little reason for such talk.

Chrétien has a new majority mandate, unquestioned control over the Liberal party, and opinion polls show that he has become even more popular since his re-election. He has fiercely loyal and longtime supporters in key places of power, and has recently reiterated, with increasing conviction, his plan to stay through the end of this term and perhaps run for another. As well, despite some journalists’ fond wishes to the contrary, there is no evidence that Finance Minister Paul Martin or anyone else is actively scheming to displace him: given the above factors, no one is feeling either that stupid or suicidal.

Still, the talk about Chrétien’s future is not going away—with good reason. One rule about politics is that today’s asset can become tomorrow’s liability as a result of nothing more tangible than changing public opinion. For example, the conventional wisdom through the last half of the 1980s was that the Liberals were all but finished as a political force because they were neither too right nor too left in their policies: as a result, no one knew what they stood for. But today, that same quality is supposed to be their greatest strength.

Similarly, here are five dangers that Chrétien—feeling more settled and self-confident than ever—must beware of: Quebec. As always, the Prime Minister’s home province is his Achilles heel. Premier Lucien Bouchard appears increasingly likely to call an election this year. Forget about the political troubles he experienced in 1997: he will win re-election in a walk. And the moment he does, with the inevitable promise of another referendum, the doubts over Chrétien’s ability to lead the federalist side will publicly resurface.

The Millennium Factor. Chrétien has been brilliant at turning two supposed liabilities into assets: he publicly proclaims his delight in being a politician, and he never tries to seem younger than he is. But increasing angst over the new millennium, coupled with more tangible fears of technological change, will inevitably cause difficulties for a man who will be 66 on Jan. 11, 2000, and is unable even to hunt and peck his way around a word processor keyboard.

Hubris. Rule One of the post-Brian Mulroney politics era: never praise yourself more than others praise you. Chrétien, perhaps inevitably for a prime minister, is showing signs of forgetting that: he" now prides himself on his role in the 1995 referendum—which he came within a whisker of losing—and proclaimed in a Maclean’s interview that he was “underestimated” at the time, just as always. At the same time, he pushed Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy aside with unseemly haste last month in taking credit for Canada’s role in spearheading an international treaty banning the use of land mines. Voters notice when confidence becomes cockiness—and so, long before that, does caucus.

The vision thing. The Liberals’ greatest success—deficit reduction—may now cause their greatest weakness. What do the Liberals now stand for? Without the discipline imposed by across-theboard spending cuts, the party runs the risk of appearing unfocused—and of succumbing again to the greedy-goat style of giveaway politics that characterized them in the 1970s. As well, it is easier politically to say no to everyone—as was the case for the past four years—than to accept some demands for money and reject others, as is now about to happen.

Finance envy. Chrétien deserves some of his greatest credit for having the savvy to make Martin—his leadership runner-up in 1990—his finance minister, with almost free rein. Now, in the postdeficit world, Martin seems weakened and vulnerable in caucus, and it might be understandable if Chrétien felt a secret satisfaction at his plight. Understandable, yes; acceptable, no: Martin occasionally muses to friends that if the day comes that he feels he has neither the influence nor the new ideas needed to keep flourishing in finance, he will ask to be moved elsewhere—or leave.

As Chrétien knows, a good artist takes full control of his environment—a quality also needed by any good politician.