The battle over the Prime Minister’s job will be nasty, brutish—and long
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT—SOON!
The battle over the Prime Minister’s job will be nasty, brutish—and long
SAY THIS FOR JEAN CHRETIEN: for a man considered cautious in character, he delivered one of the most important— and predictable—announcements of his life in utterly unpredictable fashion. For months, as pressure on the Prime Minister to retire grew to a crescendo, senior advisers like David Smith, a Toronto lawyer and newly minted senator, and Peter Donolo, Chrétien’s former communications director, had delivered the same message—that the PM would “do the right thing” if given a proper chance. That was presumed to mean that Chrétien was prepared to step down—if Paul Martin’s supporters would pipe down long enough to allow him a graceful exit. But when the PM did announce retirement plans last week, stunning a caucus meeting of Liberals in Saguenay, Que., most of his inner circle also professed to be astonished. “I never saw this coming,” said one adviser, “At least not now—and not in this way.”
And so it begins—the countdown to the end of Chrétien’s prime ministership in February, 2004, and the start of all the inevitable infighting surrounding the question of who will succeed him. Is Jean Chrétien about to become the longestserving lame duck prime minister in Canadian history, as critics immediately suggested? The answer, Chrétien and Martin supporters agree, is a resounding No—but for much different reasons. The Prime Minister and his camp argue that with no more elections ahead, he can make tough calls and ignore partisan considerations during his remaining 18 months in power. Many of Martin’s people, on the other hand, have already begun efforts to ensure that Chrétien goes well before those 18 months are up.
In fact, even as Chrétien’s supporters were getting over their surprise last week, some were chortling over the manner in which their boss has trumped Martin—at least in the short term. Overnight, Martin risks being transformed, in public percep-
tion, from victim to villain. Until recently, he’s been seen as a highly competent minister who was chased from office by a leader who resented his popularity. As the debate polarized the party, Chrétien’s defenders argued, largely unsuccessfully, that Martin’s own machinations for the leadership were being ignored by the media. But if Martin now tries to unseat the Prime Minister before his chosen departure time, the former finance minister risks, in the words of a Chrétien adviser, “being seen as the guy who wouldn’t even take Yes for an answer.”
The perils for Martin may be just as high if he chooses to sit on his hands over the next year and a half. Most of the other potential candidates—people like Allan Rock, John Manley and Sheila Copps—are cabinet ministers with the clout, organization and ability to dispense largesse, make headlines and participate directly in shaping government policy. By February, 2004, Martin, on the other hand, will have been a backbencher for 20 months, with his achievements and policy contributions that far behind him. Still worse, at least two other parties—the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats—will by then have new leaders, alongside the Canadian Alliance’s Stephen Harper, now 43. Martin will be turning 66, and, based on his greying, somewhat paunchy appearance these days, looking every bit his age. If the Tories were to choose New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, who will be 39 in 2004, the generational divide would be all the more striking.
Without benefit of a portfolio, Martin
Martin risks being transformed in public perception from victim to villain-but he also can’t afford to sit on his hands for 18 months
faces the challenge of establishing policy positions that set him apart from the Prime Minister in whose caucus he still serves. Finding a way of doing so without breaking traditional caucus solidarity will be a challenge for Martin—and, if any^ thing, will be even harder for other MPs who have backed Martin vs. the PM but who will also be testing the winds. Already, it’s being suggested that some R MPs who have been considered Martin supporters might publicly align them9 selves, at least in the early going, with other candidates considered more acceptable to Chrétien.
If all that sounds too clever by half, that’s precisely the risk for those Liberals prepared to look beyond a leadership race to the bigger issue of what’s best for the country. For the next 18 months, virtually every move the government makes will elicit an even larger than usual suspicion that it’s being driven by partisan concerns. What, for example, are the temptations for a presumed candidate like John Manley in Finance, with two budgets ahead, to introduce tax cuts or other measures that would boost his short-term popularity, but might carry longer-term dangers for the economy?
That kind of concern should worry all Canadians—and the potential for backfire should worry all Liberals. In such an instance, even if Manley were to sincerely believe there were sound economic reasons for tax cuts, who would accept that at face value?
Chrétien also certainly doesn’t want to hear this, but his decision to stay this much m
longer also deals a stiff blow to hopes of restoring a staunchly federalist party—the Liberals—to power at the provincial level any time soon in Quebec. Already, those Liberals, under Jean Charest, are struggling next to the surging Action démocratique du Québec, with an election likely next year. The ADQ, with its promises of less government and no more discussion of constitutional issues in the short term, have positioned themselves as the voice of change. And no matter how hard Charest tries to distance his party from the federal Liberals, voters invariably tie the two together. So while Chrétien is no longer as vilified in his home province as he was four or five years ago, he still drags Charest’s party down by association.
At the same time, Liberals would do
well to remember that while it’s one thing to make the best of an opportunity, it’s quite another to be seen as simply opportunistic. Twice in the last 20 years—with the Liberals in 1984, and the Tories in 1993—a governing party enjoying a large majority has replaced a retiring leader with a new one (who immediately became prime minister) just before an election. In
both instances, with John Turner heading the Liberals in the first case, and Kim Campbell the Tories in the second, they went into an election campaign well ahead in the polls, but were roundly thumped when voting day came.
All that is why, after 12 years as Liberal leader, and nine as prime minister, Jean Chrétien arguably faces the biggest test of his leadership over the next 18 months. He enters that period lacking the greatest weapon a PM usually holds over caucus— the knowledge that he controls the longterm future of individual MPs. The manner in which he succeeds or fails at holding his caucus together during that period will greatly influence the party’s chances in the next election. And if you presume, as many Liberals do, that at least part of his timing strategy is directed at denying Martin the prime minister’s post, the challenge for both men becomes the same: to thwart the other privately even while avoiding the public impression of trying to do so.
With that in mind, both men might consider an incident from the 1984 leadership campaign—the one in which Chrétien finished second to Turner. Shortly before the second ballot results were announced giving the victory to Turner, Martin’s father, the legendary Liberal Paul Martin Sr., made his way down through the throng of Chrétien supporters. As historian and one-time Liberal MP John English has recounted, Martin, even as it became clear that Turner was about to win, went over to English and whispered, “You know, there’s more to Chrétien than people think.”
That’s always been one of Chrétien’s great strengths—so much so that he often gloats about how much he enjoys being underestimated by opponents. The question is whether this time his opponents have been right—and he’s overestimated his own staying power. If so, the final chapter of Jean Chrétien’s political life could be nasty, brutish—and far too long. f?il
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