by David T. Jones
The author, a retired career diplomat, served as minister-counselor for political affairs at the U. S. embassy in Ottawa during the mid-1990s and has retained his close interest in Canadian politics. Mr. Jones has published previously on the topic in American Diplomacy. He holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. —Ed.
What a difference a year makes! To appreciate Canada at mid-year 2001, it is useful to scan back a bit.In the middle of 2000, the Liberals, although hardly desperate, were at least beleaguered. The “Clarity Bill” restricting Quebec’s flexibility in moving toward independence was being blasted by separatists who were preparing their legal countermeasures. The Liberal party conference in February had revealed serious leadership splits with supporters of Finance Minister Paul Martin launching a serious, if quixotic, effort to push Prime Minister Jean Chretien into retirement. In Parliament the Government was being pounded daily by a virtually unending string of financially questionable grants distributed by the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry. These ranged from the amusing (a riverine fountain in Shawinigan) to the potentially criminal. HRDC Minister Jane Stewart appeared hapless at best, desperately out of her depth at worst, as she attempted to explain what and when she knew and about the actuarial irregularities in HRDC disbursements.
In contrast, Preston Manning appeared to be a man with a plan. Step by step, he was moving to transform his rather rough-hewn creation, the Reform Party, into an organization with sufficient polish to play on the Toronto stage and not just in church basements in Wild Rose, Alberta. In effect the operation was a success, but the patient died; Manning’s new creation, the Canadian Alliance, rejected him for the former Alberta finance minister, Stockwell Day. In the end, Manning was too convincing: the logic that a new party with a new direction needed a new leader was compelling.
Indeed, Day was much that Manning was not: telegenic, media savvy, quip quick, and French speaking. His coming confrontation with Chretien looked like an adroit juxtaposition between the boomer generation and “yesterday’s man,” with “time for a change” a powerful theme. If the new Alliance program was not quite the old garbage in a new dumpster, at least with a new trash collector, it projected the potential for appeal beyond the West. While only the most convinced Alliance spinmeisters hypothesized an Alliance victory in the next election, many observers (including Liberal MP’s) believed the Liberals would take significant losses, perhaps even being forced into a minority government.
A Different Reality in 2001
What has transpired, however, could not be more different. The November 2000 election was a smashing triumph for the prime minister. Against considerable advice to the contrary, he selected a date far ahead of any normal/necessary timing for election and ran a tough, even brutal, “take no prisoners” campaign. The consequence was an enhanced parliamentary majority with an increased percentage of the popular vote. Adding a special fillip pleasure to Chretien’s victory was outpointing the Bloc Québecois in his native province—despite theoretically having “disrespected” Quebeckers by forcing through the “Clarity Bill” that introduced many legal obstacles to any effort by separatists to leave Canada. The result demonstrated that PM Chretien has a better grasp of Canadian political realities than any opponent, cemented his position as party leader with a third majority victory, and made him the master of his personal political destiny for the indefinite future.
The Liberals: The Pleasures of Victory
With their November victory and its unquestioned dimensions, the Liberals have the power and authority to do what they wish for Canadian society and economics. Nevertheless, in six months, they have done little and demonstrated through the absence of anything like a “100 days” of action to implement their new mandate, that the election was little more than a device to sandbag a still inchoate opp osition. And nothing important is expected; the government is on cruise control/auto pilot.
Nor, on the other hand, is the Canadian electorate crying out for action. If no longer quite the very best of good times, the economy remains strong and recession (given prospective U.S. economic recovery) looks avoidable. Finance Minister Paul Martin errs only on the side of prudence, and tax cuts coming on line combined with reserve funds retained for possible pump-priming expenditures provide further economic stimulus. The societal problems are those of privileged societies: How to manage health care costs for the aging boomer generation? How to respond to the increasingly strident claims for economic benefits from “First Nations”? How to improve the quality of education at all levels to match the prospect of sophisticated technological needs for later in the 21st century? While these are real problems, they are not those that will bring the citizenry to a boil let alone to the barricades.
The security of power, however, leads to its own frustrations. With no real external challenges, the Liberals have the luxury of internecine backbiting. Every caucus has its “ins” and its “outs.” The “outs” in the Liberal caucus know that they will never get to front bench, ministerial status as long as Chretien is in power; for various reasons, they have offended him or his coterie (or convinced them that they do not have the competence for higher position). These “outs” rarely agree with a negative evaluation of their talents, e.g., the failed multi-time minister Diane Marleau, or know that their differences are irreconcilable, e.g., Joe Volpe or Tom Wappel and resent endless years of back bench “trained seal” activity. Consequently, they have turned to alternative potential party leaders, the most obvious of whom remains Paul Martin.
The rivalry between Chretien and Martin, dating from Chretien’s leadership victory in 1990, has never been resolved. Martin, at sixty-two only a few years younger than Chretien, is clearly ready for top leadership; popular within the party, intelligent, and accomplished, most believe he would be an effective prime minister. Additionally, Martin reportedly is concerned with the current ethical level in government and would seek a cleansing; however, he is practical as well as principled. Privately, he has been quoted as saying that it is necessary to do the wrong thing twenty-five percent of the time in order to do the right thing the other seventy-five percent.
But equally obviously, PM Chretien has shown no interest in retiring. And likewise, Martin realizes that neither directly challenging Chretien nor departing from politics is any answer. Departing would be snidely characterized as “going away mad” and be a fast track to nowhere—as evidenced by former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s disappearance from effective versus visible political life. There are no shortage of next generation alternatives to Martin (Health Minister Alan Rock; Foreign Minister John Manley; Industry Minister Brian Tobin) should he abdicate from the day-to-day cultivating of his supporters. Moreover, to be fair, the internal sniping and media leaks appear more an exercise by supporters than principals. Although the Prime Minister is persistently reported to believe that Martin is “soft” on Quebec sovereignty issues, that issue is now quiescent if not solved. Moreover, he has not humiliated Martin on finance-related issues in the manner in which Chretien himself was humbled by Pierre Trudeau’s announcement in 1978 of a $2 billion cut in federal expenditures about which Chretien knew nothing until Trudeau announced it. Although their relationship is hardly chummy, Chretien did not hesitate to co-opt Martin’s popularity in Quebec during the election campaign with several carefully calculated political commercials. For his part, Martin participated vigorously, concluding that anything less than a full effort could leave him blamed for a Liberal defeat. Everyone recognizes that the good soldier, even if an old soldier, often gets rewarded in the end.
Does the “Grand-Mere Affair” Mean Anything?
One would have to be a forensic accountant with a law degree to make any serious sense from months of charges and countercharges, documents and denials that have swirled around the Auberge Grand Mere and its neighboring golf course. At its core is the intervention the prime minister made with the president of the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to urge extending a loan to the otherwise unqualified proprietor of the hotel, in which the prime minister had previously sold his interest. Concurrently, PM Chretien had sold/was in the process of selling his twenty-five percent interest in the closely associated golf course. Chretien’s repeated interventions with the president of the BDC, who was his appointee, coupled with the casual and/or convoluted nature of documentation associated with the sale of his interest in the golf course, have led to charges of conflict of interest. To wit, Chretien is accused of attempting to maintain the viability of the hotel in order to prop up the value of the golf course prior to its final sale. The appearance of a document, which the BDC states is forged, stating that the Grand Mere proprietor still owed Chretien a substantial sum of money has added a further level of complexity and controversy.
The controversy has been the primary element in Canadian politics—subsumed only by the election campaign—for over eight months. Following the election, Tory party leader Joe Clark refurbished his reputation for parliamentary effectiveness by days of persistent questioning on the topic. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that the Canadian population is unconvinced that there is any fire, despite the clouds of smoke. Polls suggest that while they would support an independent inquiry into the issues, they believe the country should “move on,” and the Prime Minister’s popularity has not suffered.
So is there a “there” there? In U.S. terms, if the President repeatedly called his political appointee at a major financial institution to urge a loan for an unqualified applicant, public criticism would be intense. But Canada is not the United States. Indeed, the worst the prime minister’s ethics counselor could say was that there was no law against Chretien’s action (although perhaps there should be), and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found no reason for legal action.
The most plausible explanation is a construct from available information. One Liberal insider close to the prime minister said that Chretien had made comparable telephone calls throughout his political career; he regarded them as normal exercises in constituent support for an MP and sees no reason to apologize for what has been lifetime policy. (A comparably placed Tory contended that Joe Clark would never have made such calls; Brian Mulroney’s staff would have intervened comparably but made sure that Mulroney was protected from any formal knowledge.) Simultaneously, Chretien anticipated a tough electoral fight against a BQ opponent in his Shawinigan riding in 1997 and was directing various grants to his constituents benefit. Hence, more HRDC money to Shawinigan than to all of Alberta and preventing the Grand Mere’s bankruptcy was just another item on the list of why voters should reelect Jean Chretien.
The paperwork associated with Chretien’s sale of his golf course interest appears more problematic albeit less meaningful. The official bill of sale is remarkably casual for an agreement between two lawyers over a substantial sum of money. Likewise, the perceptible backstage flailing to locate a substitute purchaser seems designed to rationalize away a technical financial reporting error on the status of an outstanding debt, i.e., money owed the prime minister for the sale of his share in the golf course. Given the complexities of almost any financial transaction, let alone those associated with blind trusts, it is easy to hypothesize inattention on the part of the prime minister who after all had a country to run. PM Chretien’s problems appear less the magnitude of his sins, either of omission or commission, than his absolute refusal to admit the slightest scintilla of error—a position that convinces his enemies that there is more to be found and irritates supporters who wish that stubborn pride had an earlier limit. But in essence, Grand Mere appears more on the level of “Whitewater” than “Watergate.”
So When Does the Prime Minister Retire—or Does He?
With little else in play except the succession question, that is regularly thrashed about. The reality remains, however, that the prime minister is intellectually capable (he was effective at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City), physically healthy, genetically endowed (his eldest brother is alert and active in his 90’s), and enjoying the powers and privileges of his position. He has firm control of the Liberals domestically and increasing seniority in foreign affairs as the longest serving G-8 leader. With a third consecutive (and increased) majority mandate, the likelihood that he will be ousted by caucus or party action seems remote regardless of those muttering complaints.
Nor is there any indication that he has other unmet objectives in life. He is not mega wealthy, but he is certainly as well cushioned financially as he desires. Although intelligent, he is hardly an intellectual; there is no heavily-footnoted, six-volume series on How I Saved Canada and Solved My Crabgrass Problem burning to be written. If he wants to write Straight from the Soul, he can bring back his previous ghost from …Heart. Likewise, there is an upper limit to the amount of time even the most doting grandfather wishes to spend with his children’s children. And the PM is hardly limited in the amount of golf he can play on virtually any course around the world (and probably get better tee times as an active rather than a former prime minister).
So will he ever go? Some simply appear resigned, taking a “He’ll go when he goes” approach. Others pore over various possible bench mark dates in 2003 when he will mark the fortieth anniversary of his first election to parliament and his tenth year as prime minister. The sanguine hope that the leadership review conference now scheduled for February 2003 will be the point when he announces that he will retire. Others remember semi-public statements that he only wanted to lead Canada into the twenty-first century or just sought a third consecutive electoral victory. They note his jocular (?) references to the advanced age of Louis St. Laurent who won his first majority when older than Chretien is now—-and then won another majority four years later. Certainly, Chretien is a contrarian and reportedly he determined to remain as PM and run again virtually in rebellion against pressure from Martin supporters to retire. But now his critics (and those who simply believe that he has had his turn at bat) glumly conclude that he can remain until he decides otherwise; one commented “He’ll go only when everyone has decided that he will stay.”
The Alliance Meltdown: A Political Chernoble for Stockwell Day
It is hard to characterize the dimensions of the catastrophe that continues to affect Stockwell Day. Perhaps there are other political figures who have risen and fallen as rapidly as Day, but they do not come easily to mind. Easy puns on his name flood the media. From “a new Day is dawning” to “Alliance taking Stock” to “laughing Stock.” For some he is simply “toast;” for others “fried.” Senior Alliance MPs and party officials have been scathing in denouncing every element of his personality, character, and political style. His judgment is derided, his intellect scorned, his positions dismissed as unprincipled. He has been characterized as glib, shallow, superficial, unwilling to listen, refusing to accept responsibility for error, creating a cult of personality—and not speaking particularly good French after all. Indeed, virtually every ostensible strength when he became Alliance leader has morphed into a weakness. To wit:
- his ability to deliver a quotable, 30 second sound bite is dismissed as glib;
- his facility in speaking off-the-cuff without notes is denounced for rejecting solidly written, careful speeches designed to deliver specific Alliance objectives;
- his flexibility in shifting positions during the campaign is scorned as unprincipled;
- his wide range of non university work and life experiences across Canada is characterized as proof that he has accomplished little and stuck to nothing; and
- his political success in Alberta as finance minister is pooh-poohed as a situation in which it was impossible to fail—akin to successfully finding sand in the Sahara;
- And against this backdrop of rejection, remember that with virtually no federal experience, Day led a new party into an election against the most experienced Canadian politician in the past fifty years, increased parliamentary representation and percentage of the vote, and all but totally dominated the political right in Canada in the process. One almost expects a voice from on high to denounce him in Biblical terms.
Although Day’s sternest critics are doubtless the MPs who supported Reform leader Preston Manning’s effort to create the Canadian Alliance (CA) and become its leader, it is too facile to dismiss Day’s critics as revanchist Manningites. Indeed, they accept albeit reluctantly, that Manning will never lead the party again and that he is determined to retire at the end of the year to take up new options in another life. CA leaders such as Chuck Strahl, Grant McNally, and Deborah Grey certainly regretted Manning’s defeat, but recognized that he had been beaten “fair and square” and that Day had a popular mandate from Alliance members to be leader. Their decision to step down from leadership positions along with the resignation of Day’s chief of staff, Ian Todd, although providing a prima facia case of calculated coordination, has been convincingly described by CA insiders as individually motivated and, in the case of Deborah Grey, virtually spontaneous. Certainly it was costly for Strahl who lost $24,000 by stepping down from his House Leader position. According to one senior Alliance MP, they felt “sullied” by their continued association with Day for whom they had lost all respect and whose leadership they concluded could not be redeemed.
In this regard, they cite Day’s apparently endless errors: a leader-centered, error-filled election campaign; his failure to reach out beyond lip-service to others beyond his immediate circle of family and intimate advisers; his extremely expensive legal costs paid by the province of Alberta stemming from criticism he made of a lawyer for defending a pedophile; his confusion over whether or not he met/hired a private investigator to seek “dirt” on the Liberals; and undisciplined criticism of the motives of the judge who authorized the seizure of BDC documents from its former bank president. Day appeared at that point to have exceeded the apocryphal diplomatic efficiency report judgment that, “This officer never makes the same mistake twice; he appears, however, to have made them all once.”
Musing over the willingness of so many Alliance members to drop a newly elected leader, one observer noted that many CA’ers are farmers and small businessmen; entrepreneurial realities force them to make quick decisions and change course to fit new circumstances. In contrast parties such as the Liberals and NDP are heavily staffed by government and union officials—individuals who are with organizations for the long haul and know they can survive a mediocre leader.