COLUMNS

Paul Martin’s path to power

Party rules now favour the finance minister, who has gained enough Liberal support to even challenge the PM

Peter C. Newman March 18 2002
COLUMNS

Paul Martin’s path to power

Party rules now favour the finance minister, who has gained enough Liberal support to even challenge the PM

Peter C. Newman March 18 2002

Paul Martin’s path to power

Party rules now favour the finance minister, who has gained enough Liberal support to even challenge the PM

Peter C Newman

The dirty little secret at the core of the insurrection tearing apart the Liberal Party of Canada is this: providing the vote is held by secret ballot, Paul Martin now

controls enough delegates to oust Jean Chrétien at the leadership review, due to be held in February, 2003.

To comprehend how this extraordinary coup d’état was planned and executed, go back to the early 1990s when Martin was the underdog in the race to succeed John Turner. At the time, John Rae, the senior Power Corp. executive from Montreal, who remains Chrétiens most influential strategist, went delegate hunting in the West. In an extended and largely covert campaign, he took control of the Liberal party in the region’s four provinces. He signed up enough new party members to swing the vote at the convention, held in Calgary on June 23, 1990, guaranteeing a Chrétien victory.

Determined that history will not repeat itself and keep him away from the prize he (and his father) coveted all their political lives, the finance minister has over the past three years mobilized his own delegate-harvesting machine in Western Canada. His political commandos have rounded up the majority of the regions delegates, plus the lion’s share in Ontario. In this effort, they have been aided in great measure

by the lenient rules that allowed anybody who’s not a junkyard dog to become an instant Grit. (The junkyard dogs went Alliance.)

Then, Martin’s search-and-destroy hit squad turned tough. Having delivered what they believe to be their winning quota, they suddenly got religion, insisting that the recruitment rules be made much tighter and very much more complicated. (Not retroactively, of course.) A strong objection came from Toronto power broker David Smith, who along with party president Stephen LeDrew regularly delivers the massive Ontario sweeps that have retained Chrétien in power over the past decade. Smith and LeDrew negotiated a compromise with Tim Murphy, the well-connected Bay Street lawyer Martin recently brought in as his new executive assistant.

The deal would have allowed other contenders, then including the impatient Brian Tobin, to sign up new delegates according to rules that approximate the more lenient parameters of the past. The compromise still gives Martin the edge, at least for Ontario, which has the most delegates. Tobin, realizing that his chances for gold had evaporated, promptly quit politics. (His decision to exit was also encouraged by Chrétiens choice of John Manley as deputy prime minister.) Tobin, meanwhile, has just signed a book deal with Penguin Canada.

He has a choice of telling all or decorating the bookstore remainder tables.

Allan Rock, the newly crowned minister of industry, alone had the guts to speak out publicly against the Martin-inspired restrictions, realizing that his own run for the roses had hit a brick wall. Unfortunately for Rock, Warren Kinsella, his chief strategist, for whom the description “loose cannon” was invented, deflated the impact of the minister’s opposition by gratuitously playing the racial card.

“I truly hope we’ll be able to change the rules inside the party,” Rock told me during an interview last week. “It’s an essential issue of principle. I want to go back to the point where we were able to recruit new members more freely. Leadership campaigns and elections are typically times when we should grow the membership of the party.

“I think of my own experience in 1993. I was totally unknown. I was motivated to run for office because I was concerned for the country. I wanted to run in Etobicoke Centre, a Toronto constituency where the riding association was controlled by a group hostile to me. The executive was a single-issue group, almost all antichoice people. So I started in January, 1993, and went door to door for two

months, to friends, neighbours and strangers. I had 30 coffee parties over 43 days, and signed up almost a thousand members. But if the current, impossibly complicated rules had been in place, I couldn’t have succeeded.”

What Rock didn’t say, but makes the point even more strongly, is that if the arcane procedures now being championed by the Martin forces had been in place in 1968, Pierre Trudeau would have been prevented from running for the leadership, and the Liberal party would have missed its shining hour.

Rock hits home when he charges that Martin’s people want the rules changed, “Because if we close the door now, and only the people inside the party vote, Paul feels he has it sewn up.” He adds: “What happened last fall is that I contested the election of the federal party executive in Manitoba and I spent three months recruiting people. We beat Martin with 60 per cent of the vote. Scared the bejesus out of his whole organization. Then I took them on in two Alberta ridings and beat them there, too. After that, we beat them for regional vicepresident in Alberta, by out-organizing and out-hustling them. They discovered it’s much easier to close the door than take on the other side—-and that’s what they’ve tried to do.” It’s a lousy way to run Canada’s governing party. E3