Who will bell the Grit cat?

Allan Fotheringham July 10 2000

Who will bell the Grit cat?

Allan Fotheringham July 10 2000

Who will bell the Grit cat?

Allan Fotheringham

Who is going to bell the cat? Who is the little boy/big man who has the courage to shout: “The Emperor has no clothes!”

By late 1962, Canadians were fed up with John Diefenbaker’s waffling over the Cuban missile crisis. There were mutters of a cabinet revolt. George Hees, the flamboyant Toronto minister, vowed his undying loyalty.

When Dief indicated he would scrap the $685 million already spent on the nuclear program, Defence Minister Douglas Harkness resigned. When the PM demanded at an emergency cabinet meeting that all his supporters stand up, nine ministers remained seated.

Finally Hees, in desperation, went to 24 Sussex Drive and told his boss that if he would resign immediately, the new Tory leader would appoint him chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. After the failed coup d’état, within months, of course, the Diefenbaker government was defeated in the Commons as all the rebels fled and the voters followed in the spring election.

Who now, is the mercurial Hees, a tearful loyalist one month, a Brutus the next? Who is the principled Harkness, a distinguished colonel in the war, who lights the first match?

Any dolt can see that the Liberal caucus, unnerved by the fresh face of Stockwell Day, knows it can never again win 101 of Ontario’s 103 seats—the only thing that keeps the Chrétien government in power, narrowly. It is no longer a Canadian party; it is an Ontario party, federally.

It is not only Quebec voters who are embarrassed by our Prime Minister’s increasingly frequent gaffes, once abroad away from his golf course. Not knowing the difference between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem—the very essence of the never-ending dispute between Israel and the Palestine hopefuls.

Or that he shouldn’t blurt out the private plans of the French president or fail to notice that the press is lurking when he boasts in a private meeting in Europe about how he is sending his nephew as ambassador to Paris. Or, when asked about Stockwell Day, turns it into a semi-rant against Paul Martin.

The worst secret in Ottawa is that relations between the PM and his finance minister are so sour that they no longer speak, save the formal exchanges across the weekly cabinet session. The two cabals in the capital—flacks, consultants,

backroom boys—one for Martin, one for Chrétien, even drink in separate watering holes, for fear of overlap.

So who will bell the cat? The first one out of the gate, to express publicly what everyone knows privately—that it is time to unhorse the rider? Is it Dennis Mills, the imaginative and somewhat undisciplined Liberal MP who rules the Danforth in Toronto’s vibrant Greek enclave?

Chrétiens main danger comes from that massive Ontario backbench, which—deprived of cabinet rank—have to raise their hands like trained seals behind the PM’s two Toronto dullards, Dave Collenette and Art Eggleton. Chrétien loves loyalty, which means he cherishes dullards who obey. No questions asked.

Why has, for example, the brainy Toronto MP John Godfrey, former president of Halifax’s King’s College and former editor of the Financial Post, never been elevated to the most mediocre Grit cabinet since Sheila Copps was still alive? Rosedale, richest ghetto in Canada’s richest city, automatically has a cabinet destination for its MP But the energetic Bill Graham, who supports many gay causes although married, is also not given cabinet rank.

Every single Liberal MP, while watching those acres of newsprint the kick-boxing Stockwell is getting, knows the game of bluff going on. The PM avows that he is staying for a third term; the finance minister has his agents out there hinting he will flee to the private sector.

Just as Chrétien did, sulking in stock options on Bay Street while waiting for John Turner to go. Just as Turner did at his law firm, waiting for Trudeau to go—waiting for Godot—waiting too long as his communication skills and charm grew rusty.

There’s a whiff to the Stock ofTrudeau—not the depth of course—but a whiff: the easy charm, the seemingly genuine cockiness. His handlers and minders will dampen down that Jump-for-Jesus reputation when it gets to serious campaigning.

The more important question remains: who is going to bell the cat? God knows, there’s no one in that dreary cabinet who has the balls to do a Harkness or a Hees. The best chance is for those docile seals in the backbench, one night over a beer in Hull, deciding to take their courage in their hands and at the next weekly Liberal caucus tell the boss—as others once told Dief the Chief—that it’s time to take the high jump.