Is the race to replace Chrétien over before it starts?
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN a simple question for a man accustomed to the black art of political gamesmanship. What can the other contenders for Jean Chrétien’s throne do to give former finance minister Paul Martin a run for his millions? But this seasoned Liberal party strategist seemed stumped. For a few uncomfortable seconds, the query was met with only the crackle of a failing cellphone. The question was repeated. “Oh, I heard you,” came the reply at last. Still more phone static. “I’m still thinking,” he offered with a laugh.
For those contenders often mentioned as possible candidates—the Seven Dwarfs, as they’ve been called—there’s some hard thinking ahead. Chrétien’s long goodbye has given Finance Minister John Manley, Industry Minister Allan Rock, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal and former premiers Frank McKenna and Brian Tobin of New Brunswick and Newfoundland, no shortage of time. But the mammoth gap they
must close presents them with a near impossible task. How daunting was made soberingly clear by the findings of an EKOS Research Associates Inc. poll published last week that found 56 per cent of Canadians regarded Martin as the inevitable successor. At five per cent, Manley was the closest pursuer, if being several time zones removed can be referred to as pursuit. Equally problematic for some of the hopefuls, particularly Copps and Rock—more voters think they would make a poor PM than a good one. “This is not a contest,” said pollster Frank Graves, “it’s a coronation.”
The expectation in Liberal circles is that when the time comes, some “dwarfs” will simply fold their losing cards. Already, political insiders have told Maclean’s that McKenna and Tobin will not enter the race for a variety of personal and political reasons. “They won’t say so explicitly because it helps their private business interests to vacillate for awhile, but you can count them out,” said one Liberal close to the Atlantic-area politicians, who are directors
in several corporations. Of the remainder, only Manley and Rock appear to have the clout within the party to give Martin and his massive machine any distress.
What to do? The first question is whether it’s worth it, their aides concede. A leadership race is all-consuming, in terms of energy, time away from family and money. In that sense, Chrétien’s decision to postpone his retirement to February, 2004, gives the stragglers plenty of time to test the waters. “Our best strategy now is for John to do his job well and be seen doing it,” said a key Manley aide. “So that’s what he’s going to be doing.” He has time for little else. This week, he travels to Mexico for an APEC finance ministers’ conference; in mid-September, he’ll be in Atlanta for a speech and to participate in the local Terry Fox run; and he’ll spend the end of the month in Washington at the IMF-World Bank annual meetings. Pre-budget consultations will eat up much of the rest of the autumn. Meanwhile, the “Friends of John Manley,” including Ottawa lobbyist Herb Metcalfe, have begun putting in place the organization and collecting pledges— Chrétien’s edict to ministers against raising money is not being interpreted as a ban on promissory notes—that would be needed for a campaign. “Only when we know where we stand, will John make the decision to run or not,” said the aide. Similar clear-eyed calibrations are being made by
advisers to Copps, Cauchon and Dhaliwal, whom few view as serious contenders.
There’s no such indecision in the Rock camp. The industry minister has been running full-out for almost as long as Martin, although not nearly as effectively. He spent much of last week in Quebec, mixing ministerial duties with glad-handing potential Liberal delegates. An aide admits Rock still has plenty of work ahead in raising his profile nationally and is eager to begin the task. Chrétien’s ban against cabinet ministers raising funds and opening regional offices “isn’t a major problem for now, but it soon will become quite serious,” said the aide. Rock’s team is contemplating asking other Martin rivals to form a united front and demand that the Prime Minister remove the shackles this fall. Said the aide: “We’re far behind, so we need to start raising money and hiring staff soon.” Although bleak, the situation is not hopeless for Martin’s adversaries. Their chief advantage is the pulpit of office. Not only does it aid with fundraising—once Chrétien removes the restrictions—but they will be able to tour the country on cabinet business, take credit for initiatives and dispense favours and government largesse. Martin’s front-runner status also means he’ll become the sounding board for the media on every government initiative, non-action and scandal. He’ll need to walk a razor-thin line between supporting the government and detailing how he, as prime minister, might have done better. “He’ll finally have to take a stand,” said one insider opposed to the former minister. “Martin’s a great one for telling everyone what he or she wants to hear.”
So far, Martin has enunciated only two policy positions distinct from official government dogma. He would be more aggressive in aiding cash-strapped municipalities and he has proposed far-reaching measures to reform the way Parliament works by giving MPs greater say in the formation and passage of legislation. Those will begin to sound like a broken record over the course of the endless campaign. In a sense, being in cabinet allows Martin’s opponents the cover of having to support government measures, a crutch no longer available to the backbench MP. “The dynamic changed the moment Chrétien said T quit,’ ” explained one Liberal strategist opposed to the Montreal-area MP.
“Before it was Martin versus Chrétien, with Chrétien the bad guy standing in the way of change. Now it will be about the change Martin represents versus that of Manley or Rock or Copps.”
Martin’s rivals are also counting on age becoming a bigger factor as the 2004 convention nears. The former finance minister will be 65 when Liberals choose their new leader. By contrast, Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper, at a relatively sprightly 44, could be his son. The Tories and NDP are also likely to thrust forward much younger standard-bearers. Perhaps more top of mind for delegates in 2004 is that given the weakness of the opposition, any credible Liberal leader will be favoured to win a fourth majority for the party. So why not choose the next generation leader now, rather than risk facing the same predicament one term later when their leader for the future is pushing 70?
At this stage, all the calculations and strategies sound more like wishful thinking than chinks in Martin’s armour. Rick Anderson, a former Preston Manning strategist who worked on Martin’s 1990 campaign before switching allegiances, says the only way to beat Martin is to destroy him. “If it’s a Marquis of Queensbury rules contest, where Manley and Rock say, ‘This is where my opponent stands and here’s where I stand,’ it’s over,”
he says. But there’s a danger in going negative. Any candidate seen roughing up the Liberals’ presumptive new leader, thereby helping the opposition in the next election, risks alienating the party’s rank and file. Not to mention the candidate. “Everyone has to ask himself, ‘If Martin is going to be prime minister anyway, do I want to be in his cabinet?’ ” says Anderson.
For most, the answer remains yes. So going on the attack could be self-defeating. And ineffective, believes John Duffy, a Martin strategist and author of the newly published Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada. The fact is, few long shots ever win leadership races. While Duffy sees no direct Canadian parallel to the 18-month campaign Chrétien has decreed, protracted presidential primary contests are the norm in the United States, where the dark horse myth persists. “But the record doesn’t bear that out,” says Duffy, reeling off the names of primary-winning front-runners from Ronald Reagan to both George Bush Sr. and Jr. to Michael Dukakis. In Canadian federal politics, Pierre Trudeau was the nearest thing to a dark horse to win a party leadership—and that was 34 years ago. “There hasn’t been a system devised to turn someone who’s as far ahead as Martin is into a loser,” Duffy adds. That may explain why strategists in the other camps are still thinking long and hard about how to answer the question that’s on everyone ’s lips. Hfl
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