In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the original George Bush was president, the brilliant American cartoonist Garry Trudeau used to do a devastating parody of him in his Doonesbury comic strip. The gimmick was that there were really two Bushes—one the well-meaning George whom polls showed the American people liked and respected, and the other, his foul-mouthed, ill-behaved twin brother, Skippy, who occasionally took his brothers place without anyone realizing. That was the comic means by which Trudeau depicted Bush as he inexplicably morphed from nice guy into the trash-talking bully who ultimately blew huge poll ratings and went on to lose the 1992 election.
Hang around the Canadian political scene long enough, and you wonder if the same hasn’t happened here. Maybe there are really two Jean Chretiens. One is the decent, determinedly humble guy we’ve seen for the better part of more than 30 years of public life. That one is almost shy, has a selfdeprecating humour and is as respectful of political foes as he is of friends. That’s the one who was in evidence last week during commemorative events for Pierre Trudeau—clearly grieving, but gracious in the manner in which he stayed in the background, and avoided politicizing the event. Then, there’s his evil twin—the one who, sadly, has been much more evident in recent years. That Chrétien appears increasingly isolated, cynical and dismissive of the views of all but a small coterie of advisers. He promotes policies based on how they affect the popularity of himself and his Liberals, and he spends taxpayers’ money with those goals paramount.
With an election high on the radar screen, expect to hear such contrasting descriptions a lot in coming weeks. The curious thing is that, ultimately, both sides are right—and the split views aren’t as partisan in origin as you might think. The PM, for example, clearly admires Joe Clark—going back to their days campaigning together in the 1980 referendum— and that was evident in the manner in which he praised Clark so warmly when he welcomed him back to Parliament. But talk to some of Chrétiens cabinet or caucus members—even as they prepare to run under him again—and they’ll allow that while they admire his political smarts, they find him ruthless and unforgiving in his character.
It takes remarkable gall for a prime minister even to contemplate an election barely more than 3V2 years into a majority mandate that could extend to five years. To use the hockey analogies the PM likes so much, it’s like asking your team to tear up your contract and give you a longer, richer one in mid-season j ust because you’re doing the things you promised when you
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signed the first deal. There’s no crisis that requires a vote of confidence. There’s nothing the Liberals couldn’t do legislatively in a new mandate that they can’t do now. There’s no evidence that they have star candidates waiting to be brought in: even il they did, they could manage some well-timed resignations and byelections. Senior Liberals in Ottawa—even some who until recendy opposed an early election—now say that circumstances are simply moving beyond their control. The NDP and Tories are imploding, and the Canadian Alliance is picking up fundraising strength. The Liberal government, through its refusal to cut taxes earlier or faster, is flush with cash, and keen to spend it. The PM and others like the idea of a polarizing batde between right and left that would see the Alliance and Libs shoot it out, with the NDP Tories and Bloc Québécois mosdy watching from the sidelines.
That all seems to make great sense to political strategists— which is exactly why the average Canadian should be suspicious. There’s nothing to suggest that anyone outside Ottawa is pining for that showdown: most people think the less heard from politicians, the better. And election campaigns aren’t about the Greater Good. As political scientist Richard Johnston points out in a paper released this month by the Institute for Research on Public Policy: “Only one other majority government, elected in 1945, had a vote share as weak as the Liberals’ 1993 one, 41 per cent.” And, Johnston adds, the 38.5-per-cent vote the Liberals drew in 1997 was not only the lowest ever for a majority government, only two minority governments ever came to power with less support.
Sometimes, almost inadvertendy, election fever can cause governing parties to do the right thing, such as the recent health-care deal with the provinces. It’s almost enough to make you ignore the fact that, in essence, the Libs were simply restoring funding they chopped back in 1995. But their election strategy is more carefidly targeted: they can win again with similar totals, so long as their support is concentrated in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, with a few Quebec seats thrown in. That’s why they moved recendy to restore some of the worst excesses to the Employment Insurance program that they eliminated in 1996. They eliminated the intensity rule, which discouraged repeated use of El by reducing benefits of frequent claimants.
The other reason Liberals favour an early election is there may be an economic downturn next year. You might think, then, that the prudent thing would be to hold back on spending. Not these guys. The Libs may not be a government for the people—but they clearly think they can buy the people. Wait for the election date the PM decides on, and then decide which of the two Jean Chrétiens holds sway.
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