Winds of discontent

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

A bitter leadership struggle is on in Canada's ruling Liberal Party, with Prime Minister Jean Chretien pitted against his former Finance Minister Paul Martin.

IT is summer in Canada and hot political winds are blowing across Ottawa as the governing Liberal Party faces a internal crisis that may well spell disaster for it in the next elections. Scandals, sleaze, patronage, indiscipline and craze for power mark the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

In his characteristic way, Chretien fired Finance Minister Paul Martin for getting too ambitious. Chretien had warned his Cabinet Ministers to curb their campaigns to succeed him. While Health Minister Allan Rock, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps and Deputy Prime Minister John Manley heeded his advice, Martin let it be known that he was thinking about his options. It was a veiled threat to resign, and Chretien said that he had no choice but to let Martin go.

Chretien said he and Martin had agreed at their meeting that Martin would resign. But Martin said that nothing had been agreed upon. However, he knew that it was the end of the road for him in Chretien's Cabinet. The debate whether Martin was fired or he had left on his own went on, with the Chretien camp insisting that Martin had resigned, while the Martin camp said that the Finance Minister had been fired.

Just a few weeks earlier Chretien had acted swiftly to dismiss Defence Minister Art Eggleton and demote Public Works Minister Don Boudria for breaching ethical rules. Eggleton, a former Mayor of Toronto, lost his job after he awarded a $36,500 military contract to his former girlfriend. Boudria got the boot for having spent a weekend at the home of the president of a major government advertiser.

The sacking of Eggleton and the relegation of Boudria to the post of Speaker do not have as much impact on the politics of the Liberals and that of the country at large as the dismissal of Martin has. Martin was not only the second most powerful Minister but someone known to be efficient in his job. His record in bringing down the deficit and overseeing a boom in Canada's economy had earned him political plus points. He is loved by the business class, and the striped suits on Toronto Bay Street (Canada's financial district) would rather have Martin as Prime Minister than Chretien.

Martin has amassed a big war chest for his battle against Chretien when the leadership convention comes up. Ever since he lost out to Chretien in the leadership battle in 1990, Martin had slowly but steadily gathered money and supporters to secure the Prime Minister's post when it became vacant or when the party decided to elect a new leader.

Martin and other leadership hopefuls did all they could to garner support from the rank and file of the Liberal Party, after Chretien gave them the signal to prepare themselves for a contest for the post. Chretien seemed to indicate that he was about to pass on the torch to a new leader. But the aggressive campaigning by Martin in particular, apparently led to second thoughts. He hinted that he might want to lead the Liberals for a fourth term, having already taken the party to a historic three-term victory.

Ever since Chretien beat Martin to the leader's job, their rivalry has been a well-known fact. It came to a head a few days before the sacking of Martin, when he declined an invitation to introduce Chretien to a group of Ontario Liberals. Perhaps this was considered an act of disloyalty, and disloyalty is something that Chretien hates. Martin commands considerable support among the Ministers and also in the Liberal Party's federal caucus, which has 170 members.

There were angry exchanges at the caucus meeting that Chretien called to calm the swirling waters around the party. Soon after, the two political heavyweights fell out with each other. Some of Martin's loyalists, known as Martinites, called Chretien a "bully" and vowed to carry on the fight. Chretien loyalists responded by saying that they were ready for a "street fight". Martin stayed away from the meeting.

The hardening of positions on both sides has sent party big-wigs into a tizzy because of the negative media publicity. Martin said that he would remain an "active parliamentarian". He said he would travel across the length and breadth of the country in order to sell his vision of a new Canada.

Martin has gained solid support from Liberals at the grassroots across Canada, particularly from Ontario, which has the largest number of Liberal Members of Parliament. He has even successfully wooed some of Chretien's trusted men to his side. His campaign machine is so well-oiled and money-powered that even Brian Tobin, whom Chretien brought back to Ottawa to be a Minister in his Cabinet from his post as Newfoundland's Premier, and who was once considered heir-apparent to Chretien's throne, gave up his hopes and accepted a diplomatic posting.

Chretien has made John Manley his new protege. He gave the Deputy Premier the Finance portfolio in addition to several others that he already holds. Doubts have been expressed over whether Manley will be able to wear all these hats comfortably and without exhausting himself though he is known for his athletic prowess as a marathoner. Manley himself admitted that it would be difficult for him to fill Martin's shoes.

The Chretien camp has maintained that governance of the country was affected because of the sideshow that Martin and other leadership aspirants were engaging in. They say that Liberals do not believe in assassinating their own Prime Minister and that only the Conservatives indulge in such actions.

When he sacked Eggleton, Chretien said that Ministers had become too comfortable. The Opposition parties think that Chretien and his government have been so comfortable in their nine years of rule that corruption has overwhelmed the Liberals. Chretien himself was embroiled in a controversy that broke out in April last year. It was over his lobbying for a loan for a hotel that he once co-owned and it has added the term Shawinigate (the reference is to a place called Shawinigan in Quebec) to Canada's political lexicon.

"Shawinigate" apart, a fiasco over the allotment of government advertising contracts to an agency, Groupaction, got the government a rap on its knuckles from the Auditor-General, Sheila Fraser, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which launched an investigation into the affair. A huge sponsorship grant for an outdoor fishing-and-hunting show that never took place came to light recently. This also has been turned over to the RCMP for investigation. Public Works Minister Ralph Goodale has refused to say how many cases the RCMP is investigating.

In 2000, the Liberals were caught in the storm over the grant of $1 billion through the jobs programmes of the Human Resources Department. Minister Jane Stewart came under fire from the Opposition but Chretien stood by her side and the government weathered the storm. Despite calls by Opposition members and sections of the media for her resignation, Steward continues to head the Ministry.

In 1996, the Defence Minister, David Collenette, one of the Chretien boys, had to quit for breach of ethical guidelines. He tried to influence the refugee board on behalf of a constituent. But it is believed that Chretien wanted to shield him from the Somalia scandal, which related to the killing of a Somali in 1993 for which a Canadian solider, Kyle Brown, was court-martialled and jailed. A huge cover-up was alleged as the government stopped the inquiry into the scandal. Chretien brought Collenette back as Transport Minister, but it remains to be seen if Eggleton, accused of ethical misconduct, will be brought back.

Despite all this, the Liberals are sitting cozy because the Opposition parties are in disarray. The Canadian Alliance chose a new leader in Stephen Harper but Harper still has to settle in. In the case of Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark, his own party members doubt his ability to win the next elections. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has been reduced to a rump in Parliament, and has just got the sad news that Alexa McDonough wants someone else to take over as leader.

With three consecutive victories for the Liberals, Canada has begun to be associated with one-party governance. The Liberals are still riding high in opinion polls. Although the divisions within the party are bound to hurt its image, the Liberals will close ranks and fight unitedly at the time of the polls.

Right now the party's focus is on controlling the damage from the Martin-Chretien spat. Chretien has moved in to check his rivals by making it known that he will bring in a law that will make it mandatory for Ministers to disclose the extent of funds collected. The law may not cover Martin, but he may face pressure to do so. The Premier will also tighten the code of ethics for Ministers so that a repeat of the Martin episode can be avoided.

However, Chretien may not be able to avoid the review slated for February 2003. He had objected to it on the grounds that he won the people's mandate just two and half years ago and that he should not be forced to go to the party members for an endorsement of the functioning of his government.

The Martinites have scored a minor victory in the battle leading to the review. They have managed to get the party to alter the membership rules so that the Chretien camp does not recruit a large number of members. A large number of Liberal ridings in Ontario and British Columbia are already in the Martin camp.

At the leadership review, the Liberals will get to vote either yes or no on Chretien. There will be two sets of votes, one from the general membership and the other from delegates to the convention who include "other" Liberals such as former MPs. For those with the general membership, voting starts on November 12. In the 1998 review Chretien received 91 per cent of the votes polled, but the February convention has already begun to cast a long shadow for him.

There is a feeling in Liberal circles that the Chretien camp may want to advance the date of the convention so as to deny the Martinites the opportunity to organise themselves. But the party president, Stephen LeDrew, said that such a request would not be entertained.

A poll conducted by EKOS Research for The Toronto Star, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the French language paper, La Presse showed that Chretien was the real loser in the Martin affair. This should be good news for Martin as he tries to win the leadership of the party - an opportunity that evaded his father, Paul Martin Sr., a Minister who waged a battle with Lester Pearson in 1958.

Political observers think that time will run out for Martin, who is 63, if he does not seize the opportunity and snatch the reins of power from Chretien, who is 68. If Chretien wins the leadership review and leads the Liberals in the next elections, which are likely to be held in 2004, it could mean an end to Martin's political dream. Chretien's own dream is to better the record of another Liberal Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, who also had three majority wins and had the longest tenure of 21 years in office. Chretien has completed 40 years in politics.

Between now and February 2003, victory would depend on each one's ability to win the hearts and minds of the 231 MPs and Senators and the thousands of members spread across the country.

The war has just begun and there will be some bloodletting in the party. It may turn nasty as the day of decision approaches. The Liberals have a hard choice but the dice has been rolled and there is no going back.

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