The word was out well in advance of last week's cabinet shuffle that the heavy lifters - Finance Minister Paul Martin and Health Minister Allan ROCK - were keeping their old jobs. But as official Ottawa settled back for some modest mid-mandate tinkering with the lineup, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was cooking up a midsummer surprise: he reached so deep into the obscure ranks of backbenchers - down far enough to pluck the all-but-unknown Toronto MP Maria Minna - that even the most unflappable Liberal veterans were startled. This made Minna, the new minister responsible for international co-operation, the instant symbol of the shuffle's two main messages. She leans to the left, suggesting Chrétien wants to nudge his party that way, and she stands distinctly aloof from the Martin camp, a not-so-subtle hint the Prime Minister wants to cool his finance minister's leadership aspirations.
Chrétien's decision to tilt leftward may have the more important policy implications, but it was the shot across the bows of would-be leaders that set political circles buzzing. And nowhere was the buzz louder than in Toronto. For along with her official cabinet post, Minna fills a key unofficial role as minister for that city's politically potent Italian community, a slot left vacant by Trade Minister Sergio Marchi's exit to a patronage post at the World Trade Organization. Chrétien could have elevated a better-known Toronto-area MP of Italian descent - say Maurizio Bevilacqua or Joe Volpe. Trouble is, both are longtime Martin supporters. "Appointing Maria is a poke in the eye for Martin's cheerleaders in Toronto," said one approving Liberal on the party's left flank.
The rest of the shuffle also seemed designed to shore up forces not aligned with the heir apparent. Elinor Caplan, 55, a health minister in David Peterson's former Ontario government, enters cabinet as minister of citizenship and immigration after a stint as parliamentary secretary to Martin's main leadership rival, Health Minister Rock. While Jane Stewart, 44, who took a plum promotion to minister of human resources development, is the daughter of one of Chrétien's oldest political friends, former Ontario treasurer Bob Nixon. A former minister of Indian affairs (one of Chrétien's first portfolios) Stewart herself may even be a long-shot leadership contender someday.
Few Liberals doubt that Chrétien wanted to check the organizing zeal of some of his high-profile ministers - or even ex-ministers such as Newfoundland Premier Brian TOBIN. Their behind-the-scenes machinations have revved up noticeably in recent months and Chrétien is too proud a man to be dismissed as a lame duck. So in announcing his retooled cabinet, he grandly pronounced it "the team I intend to lead into the next election." Nobody took that statement at face value. "If he hadn't said something like that, it would have been interpreted universally that he was going," observed one well-connected Toronto Liberal. "He's keeping his options open, and I expect he'll make his decision over Christmas."
With the possible exception of his wife, Aline, no one really knows when Chrétien will retire. In fact, the once-outlandish notion that he might stick around for one more election in 2001 is increasingly taken seriously by anxious Liberals. But there can be no doubt that he will preside over at least one more agenda-setting speech from the throne, likely in October. His tone on the day of the cabinet shuffle seemed to invite proposals for spending the burgeoning federal surplus - not necessarily for returning it to Canadians in the form of huge tax breaks. "We are for fiscal responsibility," Chrétien said on the steps of Rideau Hall, "but at the same time realizing that there are problems in the social and economic fields that need government intervention."
Merely hearing the loaded phrase "government intervention" - words rarely uttered without approbation during the austerity-minded first phase of the Chrétien regime - put the finance department on alert. "The Liberal party has been dominant politically because it has owned the centre," said one uneasy official close to Martin. "Keeping that position means it cannot now say to middle-class Canadians, 'There are a hundred spending priorities that rank ahead of tax relief.' "
If the shuffle gave a morale boost to would-be spenders, it still left enormous influence in the Martin camp. Martin continues to run the budget-planning process. And two ministers closely allied with him will continue chairing the two main cabinet committees: Justice Minister Anne McLellan on social policy and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale on economic issues. True, along with Caplan and Minna, the three other new cabinet faces - Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bob Nault, Veterans Affairs Minister George Baker and Minister for Amateur Sport Denis Coderre - are also tagged as centre-left Liberals. But, observes Donald Savoie, a University of Moncton political science professor and noted Cabinet watcher: "I chuckled when I heard that five new left-of-centre ministers would change the government's direction. The key players - namely the Prime Minister and the finance minister- are still in place and they dictate policy."
Supporters of Martin, who turns 61 later this month, fear he might walk away from politics if Chrétien does not leave by early next year - or at least signal his imminent departure. "At some point, it will become clear that Paul Martin will not stick around for another four or five years," said one B.C. Liberal strategist. "That's why the Allan Rocks of this world are pretty excited about the notion that Chrétien might stay."
There is, though, more than a hint of wishful thinking in that excitement. After all, Chrétien has taken to musing openly about life after politics, remarking in a June interview that he does not intend to work much or worry about making money when he steps down. His wife talks longingly about the peace and quiet at the couple's planned retirement sanctuary, in Shawinigan, Que. And while there is some tension between the Chrétien and Martin circles - particularly when it comes to Quebec - relations have not deteriorated to the point where the Prime Minister's gang seems bent on hanging on just to sabotage a contender's plans. They merely want to let everyone know who is the one in charge.
Maclean's August 16, 1999