Copps Resigns

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 13, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

After two weeks of almost farcical behavior in Ottawa, most Canadians might well share those mixed emotions of relief, bewilderment and outright anger.
Copps, Sheila
Copps resigned in May 1996 to honour her promise to do so if the Liberals did not cancel the GST. She ran again, however, and won back her seat (courtesy Maclean's).

Copps Resigns

 One night last week, 90 Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers slammed the door on their problems and danced and sang until midnight in the penthouse ballroom of a downtown Ottawa hotel. Only hours before, in a House of Commons vote that simmered with hostility, 23 Liberal backbenchers had broken government ranks in a futile effort to block legislation outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The anger that resulted was obvious: three of the dissident Liberals who showed up at the party were virtually ignored by their colleagues. But the cause of a certain giddiness that propelled one MP after another to the Karaoke machine - including the normally restrained Industry Minister John Manley, who belted out the song Rescue Me - was the tearful resignation earlier that day of Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps. There was unabashed approval of Copps's decision, however belated, to honor her 1993 election vow to give up her Hamilton East seat if the Liberals did not scrap the Goods and Services Tax. But there was something else, too. "I felt relieved - I won't say glad - that she resigned," said Sarnia/Lambton MP Roger Gallaway, who pointedly added: "She might have left sooner."

After two weeks of almost farcical behavior in Ottawa, most Canadians might well share those mixed emotions of relief, bewilderment and outright anger. To growing public consternation, both the governing Liberals and their scrappy opponents in the Reform party have stooped to the kind of political mudslinging and trickery that both once promised to scrupulously avoid. Day after day, millions of voters watched their MPs become embroiled in bitter debates that have brought the honesty and integrity of politicians - and the political process itself - into question. In the end, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien lost his deputy prime minister, who must now face Hamilton voters on June 17 in a byelection, which according to Elections Canada will cost taxpayers at least $500,000. Only five hours after her resignation, a key rump of dissident backbenchers flouted party solidarity over a human rights issue considered by most Liberals to be fundamental policy. Even the Prime Minister's canny political sense apparently deserted him in his attempts to absolve his government of any blame. Suddenly, a party that seemed able to defy the normal rules of political gravity had crashed to earth with a thud. "Why shouldn't we take a battering?" acknowledged Toronto MP Jim Peterson. "The honeymoon is over."

While the Liberals stewed in their own self-created mess, Preston Manning's Reform party plunged into its own political quagmire. Plagued with a series of gaffes since its 1993 debut as an official party determined to change how politics is carried out in Canada, Reform last week only compounded public disenchantment with politicians after two of its MPs made comments targeting gays and racial minorities. Manning, exasperated and incensed that Reform had squandered an opportunity to attack the popular Liberal government at its most vulnerable, threatened to expel future dissidents from the caucus. "The time has come," he told reporters in Toronto on Thursday, "when we just simply have to distance ourselves from people who can't practise internal discipline."

The motives behind the burst of Liberal and Reform acts of contrition perhaps lie in the fact that a general election looms as little as a year away. According to Liberal insiders, one of the first things Chrétien said to a shaken Copps when she appeared in his office on Tuesday with her written resignation in hand, was: "Let me see the numbers first." A Liberal poll subsequently conducted on Tuesday night, the eve of Copps's resignation announcement, showed strong support for her in her riding. Before the GST debacle, Copps's popularity in Hamilton East, the riding she has represented since 1984, was unquestioned and she is widely expected to return to Ottawa after June 17. She captured two-thirds of the vote in the 1993 election, winning by a comfortable margin of 17,185.

But senior Liberals say that Chrétien's concern - and the reason he steadfastly refused to admit that his own campaign rhetoric to "kill" the hated tax was a mistake - is the public perception of opportunism. Last week, he would say only that "sometimes you're faced with a situation where you can't deliver - you have to have some flexibility because acts of God come in the administration." Said one Liberal election strategist: "You never apologize in politics unless it's something that you don't have to worry about too much." And, he added, "this one is bad - an about-face undermines the whole strategy of 1993, and also 1997, to improve the image of people in elected office."

In the case of Copps, there was no other choice. For more than a week after Finance Minister Paul Martin's confession in the Commons on April 23 that the Liberals' GST promise had been "an honest mistake," the 43-year-old veteran MP insisted that she did not have to resign over her own broken pledge, made in the heat of an election campaign. A kiss on Martin's cheek after his Commons speech sealed her tacit approval of Ottawa's plan to instead pursue the harmonization of the federal tax with provincial sales taxes - a plan, as she angrily told Martin only two months ago, that she was not prepared to endorse. Four days later, at a weekend policy convention of Ontario federal Liberals in Windsor, she was still publicly cracking jokes. What a relief, she told delegates, that the two words that Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion considered the most explosive in Canada were "distinct society" - and not "I resign."

Across the country - and behind the scenes - there was a much different spin. An Ottawa radio station opened a fund to defray the cost of a byelection that Copps, in cheerful underestimation before her resignation, said would pry an unnecessary $100,000 from taxpayers pockets. Within days, the station collected more than $6,000. Her flip-flop flashed across television screens and newspaper front pages from coast to coast. One Liberal MP complained that his office had handled 600 telephone calls, most of them uncomplimentary. In the Liberal backrooms, a war raged between those party officials who thought a resignation would be disastrous, and those who argued that Copps was popular and brave enough to take the fall.

Finally, as both her Liberal colleagues and ordinary voters have come to expect, Copps did it her way. Once a fearless member of the Liberal "Rat Pack," Copps was clearly distraught when it was decided that, during Question Period last Tuesday, Chrétien and Martin would respond to opposition questions directed squarely at her. She also bridled at the often blunt advice of many of her Liberal colleagues: resign. But as she explained at her dramatic news conference in Hamilton last Wednesday, it was her conscience - and a spiritual communion with her late father, former Hamilton mayor Vic Copps - that settled the matter. "My father used to say there are two elements to public life that are critical: honesty and hard work," she said tearfully. "I think I've worked hard to sustain my honesty and I want to keep that."

The argument in Ottawa this week is how much help Copps needs to regain office - and how much the cautious Liberal party can afford to give her. On one side are Liberals who argue that the broken GST pact is between Copps and her constituency - the Liberals' Red Book of commitments, after all, promised only to replace the GST with a harmonized tax. They say that the savvy politician with the political antennae - on a good day - of a heat-seeking missile is better left on her own. And, finally, they point out that campaign visits by a barrage of Liberal top guns would invite a wider debate about a range of national issues, including job creation and social reform, that the Liberals prefer to avoid.

Chrétien's presence would certainly provide the Reform party with a target. Within hours of Copps's resignation, party strategists had cemented their campaign attack. "There will be a Reform MP in that riding every single day," said Ottawa consultant Rick Anderson, a senior Reform strategist. "They are going to have one message: this is about integrity and accountability. And when the Prime Minister comes, all anybody is going to want to know is, 'Was she right that you broke the promise? Or are you right that you fulfilled the promise - and if so, why are we having this byelection?' "

Other Liberals, though, are reluctant to take a chance on Copps alone. Privately worried about the volatility of both the candidate and the issues underlying the government's predicament, some floated rumors last week that the notoriously private Aline Chrétien, who speaks Italian, had agreed to campaign with Copps - already a working-class hero within her riding's large Italian-Canadian community. By Friday, Newfoundland Premier and former Liberal cabinet minister Brian Tobin, a fellow charter member of the Rat Pack, had volunteered his services, as did Martin, who challenged Reform's deputy leader, Deborah Grey, to meet him in Hamilton.

Although Liberals refused to contemplate defeat, a less-than-decisive victory was just as worrisome to some, who jealously covet a national approval rating that a Gallup poll last month measured at 56 per cent. In fact, private focus-group polling by the Liberals during the past two weeks indicated that the public was looking for a way to punish the party for the GST issue - but was having trouble finding a way to do it. "We've been vulnerable for the last year," said one highly placed Liberal responsible for election strategy. "We are like the banks - people think well of them because they have to. If there was a credible opposition, we would have a very major problem with Sheila. Right now, we just have a major one." Added pollster Donna Dasko, vice-president of Environics Research Group Ltd.: "Sheila hung in too long. The fact that she has resigned will help the Liberals pick up some of the territory they have lost. But they won't be able to reclaim it all."

Such blunt assessments worry rank-and-file Liberals who scrambled last week to convince themselves that the entire issue had been overblown. Copps's decision to resign was based on honor, they argued; the reason she took a week to clarify her thoughts was that it simply took that long to clear a busy agenda. According to Liberal MPs, the fact that many opposition MPs accepted such excuses was further proof of Copps's personal integrity. Indeed, Bloc Québécois Leader Michel Gauthier told Maclean's that Copps was even gallant in her gesture. "She has made a move that takes a certain amount of courage and I respect her," said Gauthier. "I think she has grown from this affair."

The Liberal caucus was noticeably less charitable last week towards those who tested, rather than touted, party solidarity. Despite the caucus's rousing endorsement of Chrétien's election pledge to allow MPs more free votes on contentious issues, the 23 MPs expected to repeat their vote against the gay rights amendment when it returns this week to the House of Commons for a third and final reading were lumped together by many of their colleagues as a religious rump, intent on embarrassing the government. And Chrétien now faces a further challenge that is likely to tax his considerable political skills. With a federal election expected in 1997, he must pull an increasingly divided party back in line.

At the same time, his Liberal government must pass the rigorous public scrutiny that will focus next month on the fate of his loyal Hamilton MP, and in the coming months, on the party itself. In a 1994 update of his best-selling political memoir, Straight From the Heart, Chrétien wrote that, after his election, he told his cabinet and his staff that he was determined to leave public life with an unblemished reputation. Being prime minister was his last job, he said. "If anyone disappoints me, I will act forcefully, because if I disappoint the Canadian people, they will throw me out - and they will be right to do so."

Maclean's May 13, 1996