Chrétien to Retire in 2004 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chrétien to Retire in 2004

Say this for Jean Chrétien: for a man considered cautious in character, he delivered one of the most important - and predictable - announcements of his life in utterly unpredictable fashion.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 2, 2002

Chrétien to Retire in 2004

Say this for Jean Chrétien: for a man considered cautious in character, he delivered one of the most important - and predictable - announcements of his life in utterly unpredictable fashion. For months, as pressure on the Prime Minister to retire grew to a crescendo, senior advisers like David Smith, a Toronto lawyer and newly minted senator, and Peter Donolo, Chrétien's former communications director, had delivered the same message - that the PM would "do the right thing" if given a proper chance. That was presumed to mean that Chrétien was prepared to step down - if Paul Martin's supporters would pipe down long enough to allow him a graceful exit. But when the PM did announce retirement plans last week, stunning a caucus meeting of Liberals in Saguenay, Que., most of his inner circle also professed to be astonished. "I never saw this coming," said one adviser, "At least not now - and not in this way."

And so it begins - the countdown to the end of Chrétien's prime ministership in February, 2004, and the start of all the inevitable infighting surrounding the question of who will succeed him. Is Jean Chrétien about to become the longest-serving lame duck prime minister in Canadian history, as critics immediately suggested? The answer, Chrétien and Martin supporters agree, is a resounding No - but for much different reasons. The Prime Minister and his camp argue that with no more elections ahead, he can make tough calls and ignore partisan considerations during his remaining 18 months in power. Many of Martin's people, on the other hand, have already begun efforts to ensure that Chrétien goes well before those 18 months are up.

In fact, even as Chrétien's supporters were getting over their surprise last week, some were chortling over the manner in which their boss has trumped Martin - at least in the short term. Overnight, Martin risks being transformed, in public perception, from victim to villain. Until recently, he's been seen as a highly competent minister who was chased from office by a leader who resented his popularity. As the debate polarized the party, Chrétien's defenders argued, largely unsuccessfully, that Martin's own machinations for the leadership were being ignored by the media. But if Martin now tries to unseat the Prime Minister before his chosen departure time, the former finance minister risks, in the words of a Chrétien adviser, "being seen as the guy who wouldn't even take Yes for an answer."

The perils for Martin may be just as high if he chooses to sit on his hands over the next year and a half. Most of the other potential candidates - people like Allan Rock, John Manley and Sheila Copps - are cabinet ministers with the clout, organization and ability to dispense largesse, make headlines and participate directly in shaping government policy. By February, 2004, Martin, on the other hand, will have been a backbencher for 20 months, with his achievements and policy contributions that far behind him. Still worse, at least two other parties - the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats - will by then have new leaders, alongside the Canadian Alliance's Stephen Harper, now 43. Martin will be turning 66, and, based on his greying, somewhat paunchy appearance these days, looking every bit his age. If the Tories were to choose New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, who will be 39 in 2004, the generational divide would be all the more striking.

Without benefit of a portfolio, Martin faces the challenge of establishing policy positions that set him apart from the Prime Minister in whose caucus he still serves. Finding a way of doing so without breaking traditional caucus solidarity will be a challenge for Martin - and, if anything, will be even harder for other MPs who have backed Martin vs. the PM but who will also be testing the winds. Already, it's being suggested that some MPs who have been considered Martin supporters might publicly align themselves, at least in the early going, with other candidates considered more acceptable to Chrétien.

If all that sounds too clever by half, that's precisely the risk for those Liberals prepared to look beyond a leadership race to the bigger issue of what's best for the country. For the next 18 months, virtually every move the government makes will elicit an even larger than usual suspicion that it's being driven by partisan concerns. What, for example, are the temptations for a presumed candidate like John Manley in Finance, with two budgets ahead, to introduce tax cuts or other measures that would boost his short-term popularity, but might carry longer-term dangers for the economy? That kind of concern should worry all Canadians - and the potential for backfire should worry all Liberals. In such an instance, even if Manley were to sincerely believe there were sound economic reasons for tax cuts, who would accept that at face value?

Chrétien also certainly doesn't want to hear this, but his decision to stay this much longer also deals a stiff blow to hopes of restoring a staunchly federalist party - the Liberals - to power at the provincial level any time soon in Quebec. Already, those Liberals, under Jean Charest, are struggling next to the surging Action démocratique du Québec, with an election likely next year. The ADQ, with its promises of less government and no more discussion of constitutional issues in the short term, have positioned themselves as the voice of change. And no matter how hard Charest tries to distance his party from the federal Liberals, voters invariably tie the two together. So while Chrétien is no longer as vilified in his home province as he was four or five years ago, he still drags Charest's party down by association.

At the same time, Liberals would do well to remember that while it's one thing to make the best of an opportunity, it's quite another to be seen as simply opportunistic. Twice in the last 20 years - with the Liberals in 1984, and the Tories in 1993 - a governing party enjoying a large majority has replaced a retiring leader with a new one (who immediately became prime minister) just before an election. In both instances, with John Turner heading the Liberals in the first case, and Kim Campbell the Tories in the second, they went into an election campaign well ahead in the polls, but were roundly thumped when voting day came.

All that is why, after 12 years as Liberal leader, and nine as prime minister, Jean Chrétien arguably faces the biggest test of his leadership over the next 18 months. He enters that period lacking the greatest weapon a PM usually holds over caucus - the knowledge that he controls the long-term future of individual MPs. The manner in which he succeeds or fails at holding his caucus together during that period will greatly influence the party's chances in the next election. And if you presume, as many Liberals do, that at least part of his timing strategy is directed at denying Martin the prime minister's post, the challenge for both men becomes the same: to thwart the other privately even while avoiding the public impression of trying to do so.

With that in mind, both men might consider an incident from the 1984 leadership campaign - the one in which Chrétien finished second to Turner. Shortly before the second ballot results were announced giving the victory to Turner, Martin's father, the legendary Liberal Paul Martin Sr., made his way down through the throng of Chrétien supporters. As historian and one-time Liberal MP John English has recounted, Martin, even as it became clear that Turner was about to win, went over to English and whispered, "You know, there's more to Chrétien than people think."

That's always been one of Chrétien's great strengths - so much so that he often gloats about how much he enjoys being underestimated by opponents. The question is whether this time his opponents have been right - and he's overestimated his own staying power. If so, the final chapter of Jean Chrétien's political life could be nasty, brutish - and far too long.

Get ready, get set...NOOO: Paul Martin got what he wanted, so why does he look so glum?

Body language never lies. And Paul Martin's slumped shoulders, sagging cheeks, eyes wandering aimlessly side to side, told a different story from the fulsome praise he recited, as if by rote, for the man who had thwarted his ambition for years. Standing at the podium where Prime Minister Jean Chrétien only three hours earlier had announced he would be leaving office in February, 2004, the former finance minister gave little appearance of a man who had won a titanic power struggle. He had come to the Showdown in Saguenay to bury the Prime Minister. He ended up praising him. "An outstanding prime minister has just announced that he will step down," Martin said at the Liberal caucus meeting. And he will be required to continue doing so, swallowing hard, for the next 18 months.

It was clear that Chrétien, if not having bested Martin as he did for the Liberal leadership a dozen years back, had at least managed to extract the biggest advantage from a hopeless predicament. As the Prime Minister, and many close to him, attested, Chrétien had never intended to contest another election. He would later say that he had confided to his wife before the 2000 election campaign, "That's the last time." So setting a retirement date only made it official, and spared him the embarrassment of having to submit to a humiliating leadership review in February he could not win. Even his most starry-eyed admirers worried that a review, aside from splitting the party, would have done maximum damage to his legacy. "The vote of confidence was perilous for him," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said in an understatement.

The decision had weighed on Chrétien for weeks. But in the last few days, say those close to him, it had become increasingly apparent the party he had devoted his life to was tearing itself apart - because of him. A loyalty letter designed to unmask the Martinites in caucus as a mutinous rump confirmed his weak position. Of 170 Liberal MPs, only 88 said they could be counted on to support Chrétien. Emboldened, Martinites waited to ambush the Prime Minister at Wednesday afternoon's caucus meeting.

Lunching with his senior policy adviser Eddie Goldenberg at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel on Tuesday, the Prime Minister asked: "Should I do it tomorrow?" By then, the only question remaining about his retirement announcement, Goldenberg told Maclean's, was whether to hold off another week or two. They decided to move immediately, in part to head off a raucous caucus meeting. That evening, after having flown to Saguenay, Chrétien phoned his wife Aline to tell her his intentions. When the Prime Minister headed into caucus the next day, only a few knew about the political bombshell he was about to drop. "I have reflected on the best way to bring back unity," he said. "To end the fighting. To resume interrupted friendships." Some fought back tears, some were shocked, some Martinites realized the difficult task he had set for their champion.

The wounds won't heal easily. "This has never happened before and it may take some time for people like me to calm down," said Chrétien strategist Warren Kinsella. Peter Donolo, the Prime Minister's former director of communications who had recently been conscripted to the cause, talked about rekindling friendships that had cooled. "You're never going to have unanimity," conceded Goldenberg, "but if you're asking, 'Are we going to have a happier family, now,' absolutely."

For Martin, last week's tumultuous turn of events is a mixed blessing. He will now have an opportunity to run for the Liberal leadership and try to fulfill a frustrated family dream of becoming prime minister. But he is no longer in cabinet, and no longer at the epicentre of the government's agenda, and 18 months is a long time to try to protect the sizable advantage he has doggedly laboured to build over the years. And the dangers for Martin, or the trap many believe Chrétien laid for his nemesis, are uncannily similar to those that ensnared Martin's father when he lost the Liberal contest to Trudeaumania in 1968.

Foremost is age. When the time comes to select Chrétien's successor, Martin will be 65, one year older than his father was when he lost to Pierre Trudeau. "People are looking for experience," said Conservative strategist John Laschinger. "I don't know that they are looking for a senior citizen." And as with his father, Paul Sr., regarded as the father of Canada's social safety net, the junior Martin's biggest achievement - slaying the deficit dragon - may be too far into the past to be first in delegates' minds.

Meanwhile, Martin's younger rivals have been given ample time to shine. By February, 2004, Finance Minister John Manley will have tabled two budgets that may have established him as just as capable a manager of the public purse. Industry Minister Allan Rock, who was recently put in charge of infrastructure spending, will be travelling around the country delivering government largesse for new roads, public transit, sewers and urban renewal. And outsiders may be ready to step into the breach if Martin falters, particularly former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna and former Newfoundland premier and federal minister Brian Tobin.

Martinites admit it would have been preferable if the leadership convention came sooner rather than much later. The fear among some is that Martin may have peaked. An Ipsos-Reid poll published days before last week's caucus meeting found that 78 per cent of Canadians would have voted to replace Chrétien, with Martin as the likely successor. And 45 per cent said their opinion of the deposed finance minister had improved over the summer months as opposed to only 16 per cent who said it had worsened. "For us, the best time to start the leadership race was yesterday," said Michael Robinson, who was Martin's campaign manager in 1990 and remains one of his key strategists. But Martin will not contest the timing set down by Chrétien, Robinson added - it would appear churlish, and he likely couldn't win anyway. "I don't think it's a big problem for us," Robinson said. "Paul has demonstrated that he can operate out of cabinet without any loss of stature with the electorate or Liberals."

Despite the many perils, Martin's advantage remains formidable. His organization's tentacles stretch from Newfoundland to British Columbia. He controls the executives of the vast majority of the 301 riding associations that will send delegates to the leadership convention. And then there is the money question. Laschinger says the longest leadership campaign he has worked on was the 10-month marathon for Mike Harris in Ontario in 1989-1990: "It was difficult and expensive." Here too, Martin is far ahead of his challengers. Although he has not revealed the size of his campaign chest, it is believed bigger than those of all the other prospective candidates combined. And while Chrétien has yet to release his cabinet ministers from his May edict to cease campaigning, Martin has already made plans to travel across the country next month. "I wouldn't worry about Martin being out of the limelight," added Laschinger.

If Chrétien has succeeded in complicating matters for Martin, he has done no less for himself. Unity and discipline traditionally take a back seat when leading cabinet members are preoccupied with campaigning and viewing government initiatives through the prism of their leadership aspirations. But last week, Chrétien wasted no time in reminding his caucus he remains the boss. "People talk about lame duck," he scoffed. "The president of the United States in the second term is a lame duck the first day [of his re-election]." But he continues to govern - to underscore his point, Chrétien warned cabinet ministers that if they feel constrained by the rules of campaigning he is laying out, they can always follow Martin's lead - out of the cabinet. "There are lots of guys who want to take their place," he noted. And he still holds the carrot of appointments. Several ministers close to Chrétien, notably House Leader Don Boudria and Transport Minister David Collenette, would likely not be included in a Martin cabinet and will be looking for a continued sinecure from the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Chrétien has laid out an ambitious agenda to keep the government's eye on the ball. Uppermost is reform of Canada's health-care system. Roy Romanow, head of a commission of inquiry, is expected to table his recommendations this November, and Chrétien has pledged to convene a First Ministers' summit on the issue. Health Minister Anne McLellan has said she wants to move quickly on the Romanow report, stressing that it would be a matter of months rather than years, even though Manley has warned there may not be enough money in federal coffers. Chrétien also hinted strongly last week his government will ratify the Kyoto accord to curtail greenhouse gases. He also wants action on early childhood development and Aboriginal governance. Other initiatives: beginning the work of rebuilding Canada's infrastructure, particularly as it relates to urban renewal, and setting a new conflict-of-interest code for MPs and cabinet. "There is no fighting on the program," he stressed. "Absolutely none."

In Chrétien's mind, that should go some way in cementing a legacy that so far he's had to share with Martin. The Prime Minister has always chafed at the perception that his finance minister was primarily responsible for bringing overdue sanity to the government's finances, when he as prime minister signed off on all budget measures. Equally, Chrétien believes he has received only grudging credit for winning three majority governments, a feat critics assert could have been achieved by any credible Liberal leader given the disarray in the opposition parties. He has always been underestimated, said a confidant. But last week, Chrétien proved he has lost none of his vaunted touch for political tactics. "After 1990, the Martin people tolerated Jean Chrétien because they thought he was only going to be a transitional figure," said one loyalist. "Now, here we are 10 years later, and at best what's going to happen is that Martin will be the transitional prime minister until Liberals choose the next generation leader." Little wonder Martin looked so glum last week - at the very moment he should have been smiling.

Paul Martin, 63

MP, Minister of Finance 1993-June 2002
Three words - organization, organization, organization. OK, four words: money. No one else can match the Martin machine, which will be able to sell (is that buy?) more memberships, pack more riding association halls and babysit more delegates than anyone else. But he should get on a treadmill - some of his rivals have that lean and hungry look.

John Manley, 52

Minister of Finance
He's the Boss's choice, so he starts off with the support of a sizable rump of Liberals who want to deny Martin the top job. He'll also get a lot of TV time, but Manley must resist the pressure to beef up Chrétien's legacy with a mountain of costly programs, or risk becoming the finance minister that spent Canada back into a deficit.

Allan Rock, 54

Minister of Industry
Personable, Rock has held a number of key government posts and will likely appeal to social activists of the Liberal party. But he's tended to be error-prone in every portfolio he's held, and he also has a tendency to sound humourless and solemn in public appearances. In fact, he's the exact opposite in private.

Frank Mckenna, 54

New Brunswick premier, 1987-1997
A natural and gifted politician, he's shown he can smooth-talk both Main Street and Bay Street. But with no national organization, the former premier must decide quickly if he's to have a chance. McKenna might be better off going to the Big Show first as a cabinet minister under Martin, then waiting for the next time to go for the leadership.

Martin Cauchon, 40

Minister of Justice
Best chance among the dark horses. Although he is largely unknown in English Canada, Cauchon is fast becoming a star in Quebec. He needs to brush up on his English diction. Still, someone's already proven that being oratorically challenged, sometimes in both official languages, is no impediment to success in Canadian politics.

Brian Tobin, 47

Ex-Newfoundland premier, ex-federal minister, ex-CAPTAIN CANADA
The "former" in all his credentials tells the story. A fiery, impassioned podium performer, he's always been a crowd favourite. But the rap on Tobin is that he can't stick it out and jumps too quickly to the next dazzling opportunity that presents itself. Also can't speak French well.

Sheila Copps, 49

Minister of Canadian Heritage
She surprised many in 1990 with her freshness and energy, but Copps will fare worse this time around. Her record as a minister has been spotty at best and she's no longer seen as having the gravitas needed for leadership. If she runs, it will only be to get the leverage to hold on to a cabinet portfolio under the new leader.

Herb Dhaliwal, 49

Minister of Natural Resources
He wants to run, but nobody can seem to figure out why. Dhaliwal has been a lacklustre minister, and the best that can be said is he hasn't screwed up. He had the misfortune of being fisheries minister when Burnt Church, N.B. was, well, burning. Didn't throw fuel on the fire, but didn't douse it either. No profile, no organization, no chance.

Maclean's September 2, 2002