COVER

Uneasy Allies

Liberals claim they are united, but behind the scenes the split between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin still divides and bedevils the party

John Geddes November 13 2000
COVER

Uneasy Allies

Liberals claim they are united, but behind the scenes the split between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin still divides and bedevils the party

John Geddes November 13 2000
Jean Chrétien is searching for something to say. Every campaign stop is painstakingly planned, but when he steps up to the microphone, he seems to be test-driving themes. At times, his stump speeches emphasize federal investments in the New Economy. Sometimes, he strains to reach a crescendo with the declaration that Liberals believe in government as “a force for good.” He’ll try a few lines about tax cuts. Last week’s flare-up in the health-care debate may have given him a winner to ride, but his Red Book leaves him with little new to say on the subject. If Chrétien's message keeps shifting, though, the signal he sends with his stance and expression—that unique melding of chronic awkwardness and enduring self-confidence—is one of firm resolve. But to do what? In a candid moment last week, he did offer a reason that rang true for wanting to keep on running the country. “I like it, no doubt about it,” Chrétien said in a TV interview. “I am a politician; I have been a politician since I was a kid.”

So there it is—a declaration of the unambiguous personal motivation behind the malleable policy rationale. But the polls show no sign that Canadians are ready to punish Chrétien for what in a less engaging politician might be read as empty ambition. Yet even Liberals confident their guy will prevail in his 12th political campaign seem strangely unenergized. Without a compelling cause to make them rally around the Prime Minister now, the party faithful tend to ponder what comes next. “We have a very unified party at this stage,” Health Minister Allan Rock told Maclean's. “But the fact is there is a process of renewal that will take place at some time, and people are going to get ready for it.”

The “renewal” Rock refers to so diplomatically is the choosing of Chrétien's successor. The health minister covets the job himself—although he is far too savvy to say so these days. It is no secret that Brian Tobin—who stepped down as Newfoundland premier to run in this election and lead a Liberal push to recapture some of the 20 East Coast seats the party lost to the Conservatives and NDP in 1997—also wants the job. But Rock and Tobin are long shots to take over the party. The undisputed front-runner is, of course, Finance Minister Paul Martin. His role in this election is discussed with exquisite delicacy by top Liberals, who want to quash any hint that Martins long-standing rivalry with Chrétien might sour the party’s campaign-trail solidarity. Political opponents, though, are not so tactful. At a Toronto rally for Conservative Leader Joe Clark, former prime minister Brian Mulroney—an expert on party infighting since he undermined Clark’s first tenure as Tory chief and finally replaced him in 1983—pledged that if Martin came over to the Tories, he would “be treated with the respect he deserves.”

Is Mulroney’s insinuation that Chrétien's inner circle is disrespectful of Martin anything more than a partisan jab?

Liberals in both the Chrétien and Martin camps have closed ranks for the campaign, and most of them declare with equal fervor that any hard feelings have been put aside, at least until the Nov. 27 vote. There have been ritual displays of togetherness. The day after Chrétien called the election, Martin appeared onstage with him at a big rally in Toronto. The two walk side by side, smiling with strained bonhomie, in one of the Liberals’ French-language TV advertisements. Behind the scenes, a handful of Martin backers have been given respectable campaign jobs—although none at the top stratum reserved for Chrétien loyalists. Martin adviser Mike Robinson will prepare Chrétien for this week’s debates, with help from Martin aide Scott Reid. Another Martin aide, Mark Watton, is Liberal campaign director in Nova Scotia—notable since Chrétien's election plan targets the province for special attention as fertile ground for picking up new seats.

While some other Martinites complain privately of being left out, even they agree there is next to no chance of embarrassing rifts opening during the campaign. Liberals pride themselves on exemplifying the discipline of power. In particular, pro-Martin MPs who called for Chrétien to step down in an outbreak of public squabbling surrounding a party convention last March have zipped up on the leadership dispute. One member of Martins inner circle, who asked not to be named, said those MPs did some soul-searching after that messy episode—and concluded that prolonging the internecine battle risked plunging the party into a period of disarray like the one that fatally undermined John Turners term as leader. “There’s still a lot of division,” said the Martin backer, “but frankly there’s no way this caucus will do to Chrétien what Chrétien did to Turner.” (At the time of Turner’s resignation in 1990, many observers concluded that Chrétien's supporters had made it impossible for him to go on.)

Exactly what made Martin decide to sign on for Chrétien's bid for a third majority is a subject of intense speculation in Liberal circles. Close advisers to both of the party’s alpha males flatly dismiss whispered rumors that Chrétien might have privately assured Martin that he will leave 24 Sussex Drive, say, two years into a new mandate. “Martin and Chrétien have never had a conversation like that,” declared a Martin confidant. “Chrétien would never put a time limit on his leadership.” What is generally agreed, though, is that Chrétien made it clear he would not shuffle Martin unwillingly out of his job as finance minister—a post that Martin took reluctantly in 1993 but now seems loath to leave.

Just as important as that job-security clause was a timely signal Chrétien sent before the election call that there will be no curtailing of Martin’s independence. Remarkably, the Prime Minister gave his finance minister virtually a free hand to draft the mini-budget that set the stage for the election. That was a surprise to many insiders. Finance officials told Maclean's they had fully expected the Prime Minister’s election strategists to dictate key elements of what was, after all, less a standard budget than an extraordinary campaign document. Instead, the Prime Minister’s Office stood back and let Martin’s team design a tax-slashing plan, combined with modest spending, that the minister tabled in the House of Commons just four days before Chrétien's Oct. 22 election call. “I still marvel at the utter freedom they gave us to design that document,” said one senior Martin adviser last week.

The decision to let Martin follow his own instincts meant the Prime Minister’s most influential strategists were leaving it to a separate group of policy thinkers and political tacticians to dictate the policy framework around the campaign. But the situation was reversed when it came to drafting the broader Liberal platform, the so-called Red Book III released last week. This time, the Prime Minister’s closest advisers did virtually all of the policy work, with Martin’s brain trust now left out of the planning process, apart from some polite consultations.

The separate processes that produced the mini-budget and the platform suggest a live-and-let-live entente between Martin and Chrétien. But the distance between the two camps also creates serious problems in the campaign period, when reading from the same script is crucial. The two documents do not mesh together easily—and arguably clash on a central point. The platform, titled Opportunity for All, repeats the Liberal party’s vow from its 1997 Red Book to allocate “half of our surpluses to tax and debt reduction, and the other half to social and economic investments.” But it takes a very creative accountant to find real evidence of a 50-50 split when the platform’s spending plans are balanced against Martin’s tax cuts.

The platform lists $24.2 billion in new “investments” over four years, far outweighed by the $92.8 billion in tax reductions Martin promised over the same period—and that’s not taking into consideration his commitment to pay down at least $3 billion in debt a year, likely much more. Martin told Maclean's the 50-50 pledge is not meant to put firm limits around budget-making. “It is not a rule of law,” he explained. “The main purpose of setting it out is a symbol of balance.”

In fact, there is barely a mention of Martin's massive tax-cut package in a two-page introduction to the platform that appears over Chrétien's signature. Near the front of the pamphlet, two brief pages on “strong finances” look tacked on as a sort of tip of the hat to Martins fiscal rectitude. Then comes the meat of Chrétien's election pitch outlined in three longer chapters: one on innovation, promising high-speed Internet access in all communities by 2004; a second on health and the environment, highlighting Chrétien's Sept. 11 deal with the premiers to boost health funding; and a third on what the Liberals call community issues, from crime to agriculture, showcasing such policies as a pledge to work with provinces to create more affordable rental housing.

The fact that there is no sign of any effort to integrate Martins across-the-board tax relief as a major thrust of the platform reflects the distant relationship between the two main Liberal factions. Martins policy flows out of his department and the private consulting firm Earnscliffe Strategy Group. Chrétien's ideas are developed by a tight coterie of advisers, led by his alter ego Eddie Goldenberg and policy chief Chaviva Hosek, with pollster Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates Inc., supplying an influential outside perspective on what Canadians want. Yet it would be wrong to view the existence of these parallel Liberal universes as dysfunctional. After all, the arrangement worked well enough to eliminate the federal deficit and send the Liberals into this campaign with a daunting lead in the polls. Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto political science professor and expert on the Liberal party, says the competitive, yet productive, relationship is unprecedented. “Without Martin, Chrétien would not have been able to do the job he has done,” Clarkson said. “And yet there’s this tension. I think it’s unique.”

Productive as the relationship between Chrétien and Martin has been, it carries obvious risks for a party marching into a campaign. While there was nothing in the first two weeks to compare with the bitter divisions that turned last March’s convention into a full-blown family feud, those undercurrents occasionally break to the surface. When Chrétien decided not to invite the president of the Young Liberals of Canada, Véronique de Passillé, to join his election tour—a prized role played by her predecessors—a flurry of outraged e-mails circulated among the party’s youth wing. De Passillé is an outspoken Martin supporter. Even Tyler Banham, the young Liberals’ communications vice-president—an irrepressibly upbeat partisan, who at 22 is working in his third federal campaign and has his pro-Chrétien patter down cold—cried foul. “Véronique had given her commitment that she was going to work as hard as she could for a third majority,” Banham said. “I think that should have been accepted.”

Another bad day for party unity came when the entire executive of a local Liberal association in a Quebec riding resigned over the selection of a staunch Chrétien supporter as their candidate. Liberal organizers in Montreal unilaterally picked Réal Marmen as the party’s candidate in Rimouski-Neigette-et la Mitis. In stepping down as riding president in protest, Réal Tremblay told a news conference the Liberals could not win the seat until Chrétien leaves and Martin ascends to the top job. But most Quebec Liberal organizers are staying in their jobs to fight the campaign—although some make no bones about their misgivings about Chrétien. “We’re at war right now so we’re fighting for our side,” said Louis-Victor Sylvestre, president of the Liberal riding association for Berthier-Montcalm, near Quebec City. “We are trying to minimize Chrétien and emphasizing the team, Martin, Allan Rock and John Manley, Pierre Pettigrew and Stephane Dion, and say, ‘Don’t think only of Mr. Chrétien, look at how the government is managed.’ ”

The Liberal split over leadership is more nuanced outside Quebec. While many Liberals elsewhere might also have preferred to be running this time under Martin’s banner, Chrétien draws on a deep well of respect and fondness in the party. He is a proven winner who enjoys a warm, reciprocal rapport with many voters, even when he is straining to find a focus for his stump speeches. Still, Liberal organizers in the West, where the party faces a tough fight against the Alliance to hold its smattering of seats or steal a few more, tend to regard the Prime Minister with ambivalence. Last week, when Chrétien stopped for a Liberal rally in Edmonton, Greg Schmidt, campaign manager for Justice Minister Anne McLellan, who faces a tough battle to hold her Edmonton West seat, shrugged off a question about whether Alberta Liberals might fare better under Martin. “That’s a hypothetical,” Schmidt said.

When it comes to the hypothetical, many Liberals are indulging privately in discussions about what happens after the election. How long would Chrétien, 66, stick around if he won a third consecutive majority? Would he step down quickly if an Alliance breakthrough relegated him to a minority? Don’t count on it, says one senior Martin supporter: “Chrétien is not the type of guy who wants his epitaph to be that he quit the fight.” Based on that assessment of the Prime Minister’s pride—and contrary to speculation that Martin might secrectly welcome a minority result— savvy Martin backers are pinning their hopes on a majority that would allow Chrétien to leave anytime with his head held high. So far there is nothing to suggest he will get anything less on Nov. 27. Based on the latest Ipsos-Reid poll, Barry Kay, a Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist who analyzes publicly available polling, projects a huge 173 seats for the Liberals—way up from the 155 they won in 1997— compared with 71 for the Alliance, 49 for the Bloc Québécois, six for the NDP, a single Tory MP and one Independent. That forecast is based on polling conducted partly during the days last week when the Alliance was drawn into a dangerous debate over “two-tier” health care. Stockwell Day was left struggling to explain that he favors private clinics operating alongside public ones only if all services are covered by government health insurance. But Chrétien accused the Alliance of disguising its true inclination to dismantle the universal health system. After a rudderless start to the campaign and a platform launch that exposed his party’s divisions rather than crystallizing a single vision, Chrétien may have been handed an issue his party can unite behind. Now the question is whether Liberals can convince themselves that they not only want to win, but win for a reason.—To have your say on the federal election www.macleans.ca