There had to be a better way for Paul Martin to quell the jitters in that band of Liberal supporters who can't wait for him to become top dog in the pound. The 15 or so Liberal MPs summoned to a meeting at a Toronto airport hotel by Martin aides on March 10 were reportedly distressed by reports the finance minister was tiring of waiting for Jean Chrétien to call it a day, and might quit federal politics to head the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps the MPs were unaware of the long-standing tradition that the IMF is headed by a European. But if the aim was to scotch rumours that Martin was considering a career change, his advisers should have found a better way to convey the message. They could have talked the MPs down over the phone. Or spread the word by e-mail.
One thing is certain: when you convene a secret meeting of politicians and backroom boys, it won't remain secret for long - especially when it takes place a week before a Liberal party convention. Politics is a gossipy business. Put two politicians in a room and at least one is likely to leak. Pull 25 together and it becomes a chat room.
And so the meeting became a bomb that went off in the laps of the Martin leadership team, its concussion temporarily rocking the normally unflappable finance minister. His supporters acknowledge they discussed polling that showed Martin would fare better than Chrétien in the next general election. But they also insist they warned Martin's backers in caucus to keep their impatience under wraps. They did not want to appear to be organizing a putsch in the run-up to last weekend's biennial party convention.
So why then did a few of the MPs promptly march out, call reporters and let it be known they thought it was time for Chrétien to go? Some were known critics of the Prime Minister - like Diane Marleau, still bitter over being booted from the cabinet last August. And former caucus chairman Joe Fontana, a prominent Martin backer, who ventured to reporters that "the Prime Minister has done a fantastic job thus far and maybe he should consider stepping down." But other unhappy voices included Hamilton MP Stan Keyes, hardly your rabble-rousing backbencher, and a handful of long-serving party organizers from across the country. They couched their own opinions behind the veil that their constituents and party workers were pressing for a leadership change.
Chrétien easily deflected these swipes at his leadership, of course. He knows a thing or two about how hard it is to overthrow a sitting party leader, having tried and failed himself when John Turner had the Liberal helm. The Prime Minister summoned representatives from a few select newspaper outlets into his office for interviews last week (omitting The Globe and Mail, which had just commissioned a poll showing 60 per cent of Canadians think the PM should retire) and made it clear he will lead the party into the next election. "I'm a young man in good health," said the 66-year-old Chrétien. In a 57-minute address to delegates on Friday night, he added: "The first two mandates were not easy. Now the sun is shining again. And it's why I want to run in the next election. The job is not finished." Ninety-one per cent of delegates had endorsed his leadership at the last Liberal convention, the Prime Minister reminded everyone. He skipped the fact that the mandate was given closer to the last election than the next one, and long before anyone had ever heard of the human resources department's troubling spending sprees.
Not to worry. There were plenty of Liberals who rushed to their leader's side - especially in a convention week - a Praetorian guard of the loyal and the self-interested. The latter element includes just about every Liberal who thinks they should succeed Chrétien one day, but needs more time to build the profile and organization to challenge Martin. Health Minister Allan Rock, busy pulling together his own leadership team, said he was a "strong supporter of the PM. He's one of the reasons I got into public life. I'm glad he's staying."
Fiery Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, another Liberal with daydreams of living at 24 Sussex Drive, happily jumped at the chance to chastise Martin for disloyalty. "The unity of the Liberal Party of Canada is critical to the political health of our nation," he wrote in an opinion piece he quickly penned for The Globe and Mail. Never mind that Tobin had been in Ottawa a month before, bashing the Chrétien government for being out of touch on health care. Tobin now cited Chrétien's 1997 election win and the endorsement of the last Liberal convention as all the reason the Prime Minister needed to stay on. It was incredible, Tobin wrote, that a handful of MPs would "challenge this democratic process." If Tobin is read correctly, democracy under his prime ministership will be defined as mute obedience.
All of this amounted to one of the wildest weeks inside the Liberal party since, well, since Turner was boss. To those Canadians who have only a passing interest in whether Martin or Chrétien or anyone else leads the Liberals, it was a bizarre scene: a governing party, halfway through its second majority and facing what is charitably described as a confused opposition, scuffling with itself. There is no grand ideological divide among Liberals. So what that the polls say Chrétien should quit while he's ahead; they also say Canadians approve like never before of the job he's doing. The explanation for the party infighting is surprisingly simple and hardly lofty: Martin has no interest in hanging around until Chrétien finally decides he wants to play golf full time - despite the finance minister's tortured insistence last week that he will run again even if the PM stays. And those Liberals who have tied their careers and ambitions to Martin's comet have no way to force Chrétien out other than by provoking a showdown.
The Martin forces feel their biological clocks ticking. They are also starting to take the Prime Minister at his word that he's staying. A year ago, Chrétien was given to making open comments around his office about the inevitability of Martin's succession. "When Martin is PM, he'll find all his old business deals will come back to haunt him," Chrétien would tell associates. Or: "When Martin's PM, he'll find he can't keep all his Toronto Italian MPs happy." But since last fall, the Prime Minister's tone has changed. He is now given to musing aloud how Canadians are comfortable with him, "like an old shoe," he'll say. And he has now struck as convincing a pose as possible that he thinks Canadians will be wearing his sensible style for another four years.
What future Martin chooses for himself under that scenario is anyone's guess. He certainly could not have been happy watching the rather undignified clips of himself on television, lost for words to explain the behaviour of his supporters, scurrying away from the microphones and cameras like Mick Jagger fleeing another woman waving a paternity suit.
But Chrétien, too, has to be shaken by what transpired. He may have stared down the disgruntled MPs, but it is rare to have caucus displeasure so openly expressed. Once the genie is out, it is difficult to stuff it away again, as leaders from Joe Clark to Margaret Thatcher have learned to their distress.
Chrétien can counter some of that unrest if he can come up with clear reasons for wanting to stay. It's not enough just to say he loves the job and he's done it well. Or that he's promised his own key backers he would run again and they have made their career choices accordingly. None of those will carry much weight with ordinary Canadians, who are far more interested in what Chrétien plans to do for them if he is granted a third mandate. The Prime Minister seems to be sensing that need himself. But he will have to do better than the obvious bromides about leading the country into the New Economy.
In the end, no matter what vows he has made, Chrétien will probably base his ultimate decision whether to run on a more hard-headed assessment of his chances. Last summer, he told golfing companions to watch his friend Roy Romanow. The Saskatchewan premier was going to win a big majority, Chrétien predicted. When Romanow was returned with just a slim minority, Chrétien got the news while travelling in Asia. "I'll never let that happen to me," he told his entourage. He has no interest in the so-called fun of running a minority government. Jean Chrétien wants to go out a winner.
Maclean's March 27, 2000