PAUL WELLS September 1 2003


PAUL WELLS September 1 2003


The Back Page

for the Liberals. That’s why Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien sound so alike lately.


THE OLDEST RULE of political organization: book a room too small for the crowd. Makes the crowd look bigger. So as the federal Liberals’ late-summer caucus retreat began, a middling-tiny hotel ballroom in North Bay, Ont., was pressed into service for one of Jean Chrétien’s last important speeches to his troops. MPs, senators and political staffers squeezed into the venue like so many sardines with expense accounts, hoping for some hint about how the big guy will handle his last full season as their leader.

He talked about peace, prosperity, respect, dignity. Smatterings of applause. Equality. Clap-clap. Protecting the environment. Yawn.

Then he talked about... victory!... and they stood to holler their delight. This party knows its priorities.

“Only two prime ministers in Canadian history—Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson— have turned their party over to a new leader who has won the next election,” he said. “I want to be the third.”

It was hard to tell amid the roar, but I thought the little knot of Grits around Paul Martin was cheering loudest of all.

The Liberals have spent more than a year, ever since Martin left the cabinet, divided into factions. A growing element stood for Martin. A shrinking bunch stood against. Two families, both alike in dignity: neither had any. It was such a nasty year that of course everyone expected the nastiness to continue here in North Bay, with the same-sex marriage debate serving once again as a proxy for continued head-butting between the party’s alpha males.

Everyone expected it, so it didn’t happen, or at least not the way we thought it would. Recall this party’s highest virtue: winning. It trumps everything else, even rivalry. Which is why, for nearly a decade, Chrétien and Martin made such a formidable team even though each might prefer to see the other throttled. For as long as their interests coincided they could get along. It turns out they haven’t entirely lost the knack.

Martin spent July and half of August searching for an alternative to the conclusions Chrétien reached in June before deciding there weren’t any. The courts’ decision to permit gay marriage was based on Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights. No Liberal government would appeal such a ruling. No Liberal government would use the Charter’s “notwithstanding” clause to trump rights. Having discerned which way the parade would go, Martin got out in front of it.

Pure self-interest made him turn his Tues-

day-morning scrum into the finest gift he has given Chrétien in years. When we quizzed him on same-sex marriage he supported the government down the line. No appeal to higher courts, no “notwithstanding,” no support for any measure that would “take away acquired rights.”

Oh sure, Martin played his great-democrat tune, inviting backbench Liberals to debate “alternatives” to gay marriage all they like. But he took care to set the bar for any alternative at ceiling height: it must be Charter-proof and it must not smack of “separate but equal” accommodation. Chre-

tien’s speech that night in the cramped ballroom made nearly identical arguments. The two men hadn’t coordinated their remarks. They didn’t have to. One has to govern. The other will soon. It makes them think alike.

The next day Dan McTeague, an amusing Ontario MP who is drawn to reporters’ microphones the way moths are drawn to streetlights, suggested a referendum on gay marriage. Once again Martin’s and Chretien’s responses were separate but equal. You don’t use majority rule to decide minority rights, each said. For that delicate task, you need the accommodations built into constitutions and parliaments.

The sight of the two big guys singing from the same page put the assembled Grits into a better mood than they’ve felt in ages. Two nights running they ran the waiters ragged at Churchill’s, a fine restaurant, dining and carousing in groups whose composition blurred the rigid lines of faction that have divided them for a year. I ran into an MP who’d told me as early as 1999 she wanted Chrétien out on his keister after “one more Canada Day.” Now she couldn’t stop talking about his speech to the troops. “It’s so brilliant, what the boss said,” she gurgled.

Don’t get me wrong. The gay-marriage bill has this caucus badly divided. MPs came out of Wednesday’s first long caucus meeting shaking their heads in surprise at which colleague was on which side. But it’s an honest disagreement about policy, not a version of the Chrétien-Martin cage match.

Their long rivalry is nearly over now. The two still jockey for temporary advantage. Chrétien keeps us guessing about the precise date of his departure. But meanwhile, men close to Chrétien and Martin have quietly begun discussing the technical details of a transition, matters of staffing and the like. So-and-so might be worth keeping on. Soand-so might want to look for work elsewhere. Things like that.

Chretien’s Tuesday-night speech listed six bills he wants to pass this autumn and a seventh he’ll be happy to pass if the first six go well. The seventh is a change to electoral riding boundaries, a high priority for Martin. The First Nations Governance Act, a bill Martin isn’t warm on, is nowhere on Chretien’s list. As Paul Simon pointed out in one of his songs, negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same. I?]

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