Politics I

THE PM TURNS TO MR. FIX-IT

Chrétien’s troops seemed to be sitting on their hands. Enter John Rae.

JOHN GEDDES July 15 2002
Politics I

THE PM TURNS TO MR. FIX-IT

Chrétien’s troops seemed to be sitting on their hands. Enter John Rae.

JOHN GEDDES July 15 2002

THE PM TURNS TO MR. FIX-IT

Chrétien’s troops seemed to be sitting on their hands. Enter John Rae.

Politics I

JOHN GEDDES

FOR ABOUT A MONTH AFTER Paul Martin exited Jean Chrétien’s cabinet on June 2, the Prime Minister’s team did not seem to know quite what to do. Martin and his operatives moved briskly into battle mode, as he hit the road for early summer campaign-style swings through Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. But Chrétien’s inner circle appeared unable to accept the fact that they were suddenly in a war for control of the Liberal party, one that would have to be waged the old-fashioned way—riding by riding, member by member. Instead of getting started, they obsessed about party membership restrictions they say favour Martin, even suggesting Chrétien might

invoke obscure powers to change the rules. Some fulminated anonymously about the way the Martin side has conducted its political fundraising over the years, as if they were pinning their hopes on somehow invalidating the former finance minister’s indisputable popularity.

Then, last week, the fog of distractions that had enveloped the Chrétien camp lifted. The Prime Minister’s Canada Day performance marked the change in tone. He treated the throng on Parliament Hill to a bit of old-style politicking, complete with a patriotic speech and, despite oppressive heat, a 45-minute press-theflesh walkabout. Over the next few days, Chrétien’s loyalists began sounding as

workmanlike as their boss had looked on July 1. No more bitter muttering about those contentious membership rules or dark hints about smearing Martin’s reputation. Instead, the Prime Minister’s camp started talking about getting organized. Their new message: Liberals flirting with the idea of voting against their own leader, a sitting prime minister, would be made to remember that loyalty is the indispensable ingredient in the party’s “winning tradition.”

As important as the message was the man now putting it out: John Rae. A longtime executive of Montreal’s Power Corp., and even longer a trusted adviser to Chrétien, he comes cloaked in the aura

Politics I >

that clings to backroom figures who have proven they know how to win. Rae, now 56, held the top position in Chrétien’s successful 1990 run for the party leadership, and the three majority election victories that followed. In the age of spin, he doesn’t —unless it’s absolutely necessary. (His campaign mantra, much repeated, if not adhered to, in Liberal circles: “In defeat say little, in victory say even less.”) So when Rae started talking to the media last week about how the Prime Minister would win next February’s leadership review, there was no mistaking the signal that the Chrétien machine was being reassembled.

Not that the taciturn general was blabbing about the coming campaign in revealing detail. “It will be very locally based, very broadly based,” was all he would say about strategy to Maclean’s. “It will be very oriented to getting across the simple message of supporting the winning Liberal tradition.” That tradition: loyalty to the leader. But it’s hardly an ironclad Grit doctrine. After all, Chrétien’s forces worked in the 1980s to push out John Turner. The distinction they make these days is this: Turner lost two elections, in 1984 and 1988, and Chrétien has won the following three. In other words, the real winning tradition of loyalty boils down to sticking with winners.

The twinned themes of loyalty and victory are potent in party politics. Martin’s side counters by repeating the words “renewal” and “future” as often as possible. And rarely has the time-for-a-change theme—that hardy political perennialcome packaged with so little evident risk. After all, Martin is nearly as familiar to Canadians as Chrétien, and leads the Prime Minister in voter preference surveys. Among decided Liberal voters, an Ipsos-Reid poll last month found 46 per cent would choose Martin as leader, compared to just 31 per cent for Chrétien. (The rest said they would choose neither or were undecided.) And those strong Martin numbers were manifest in big, enthusiastic crowds as he toured British Columbia and Alberta last week, and southwestern Ontario the week before.

The triumphal energy surrounding Martin’s road show has to be worrying for Chrétien. In London, Ont., Chris Campbell, manager of The Ceeps, a venerable bar, said that when Martin stopped by with his entourage for beer, the

response among patrons compared to a recent appearance by Jason Williams, the local hockey hero who plays centre for the Detroit Red Wings. “Martin definitely has star quality,” observed Campbell. “Customers shook his hand. It was exactly the same kind of buzz as when Jason came in right after winning the Stanley Cup.” Even Martin’s most inventive spinners don’t make up that sort of stuff. In fact, they are trying hard not to sound smug these days. When asked, though, they claim, with credibility, the support of more MPs and many more riding presidents than the Prime Minister. And while Rae and other seasoned Chrétien campaigners are only now re-entering the fray, Martin’s core group has been steadily working toward another leadership bid since they lost the last one in 1990. While there is no official hierarchy, Martinites agree that David Herle, 40, has emerged as the key organizer—effectively Rae’s opposite number. Originally from Saskatchewan, Herle has been linked to Martin since the early 1980s, from well

Paul Martin has been drawing enthusiastic crowds everywhere he goes. But the Chrétien camp is stressing loyalty and the PM’s proven track record as a winner.

before Martin’s formal entry into politics in the 1988 election. He is a consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, an Ottawa lobbying and communications consulting firm so densely populated by Martin backers that it is viewed as the farm team for his eventual Prime Minister’s Office.

The crowd from Earnscliffe deny they are campaigning to beat Chrétien in the leadership review. Technically, that’s accurate: they hope he will announce he is bowing out before it comes to that. The awkward, two-stage review process would begin in the late fall, with Liberals casting ballots at the constituency level. The Prime Minister must win both that vote and another among delegates to the February convention. “February is a long time away,” said one top Martin organizer. “A lot of Liberals hope it doesn’t happen. It’s quite possible Chrétien will just decide before then he wants to leave.”

Such a decision would be a matter of arithmetic. For all Rae’s talk of urging existing Liberals to stick with a winner, signing up fresh members may prove more fruitful than trying to win back old ones. The machine gearing up to save Chrétien boasts a formidable contingent of organizers tapped into the South Asian community, often a rich source of mass membership sign-ups. Martin strategists also promise waves of new recruits. “A tremendous number of people are interested in getting behind Paul,” said one. “At the constituency level, there’s going to be a lot of activity this summer.” Sometime in the fall, Chrétien will have to decide if the recruitment tide is running his way. Rae will have his tally, and Herle with have his. If the numbers are close, the review process will go ahead— almost certainly dividing Liberals so bitterly that this summer of organizing drives will be remembered, by comparison, as a period of placid harmony in the governing party. \f]