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Economics

Canada Election

23 June 2004

Canada: The Master’s Revenge?

By Gwynne Dyer

The time limit for a majority government in a two-party system is now usually ten to twelve years. After that, it is living on borrowed time. Neither major party in the United States has held the White House for more than twelve years since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, and only the Margaret Thatcher-John Major combination made it past the twelve-year mark in Britain in the past half-century.

It certainly hasn’t happened in Canada in the past fifty years, and it looks like this time will be no exception. Six months after Jean Chretien stepped down from ten years as prime minister, the voters seem likely to dump his successor, Paul Martin, in the election of 28 June, or at least to force the Liberals into a coalition or a minority government. And the question is: did Chretien intend this to happen?

Chretien had the charisma of a sea cucumber, but he was unquestionably the most accomplished professional politician to govern Canada in the past half-century. His gangster looks and his bad English (and bad French) led one wit to dub him “the guy who drove the getaway car,” but nobody matched him at the practical side of politics: working the rooms, rewarding the supporters, and managing the issues.

He also picked good people. His most important choice was Paul Martin as finance minister; it was Martin who brought the huge deficit and the crushing national debt that the Liberals inherited from Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government under control, and produced the current Canadian economic miracle of high employment, low debt and no deficit. But Martin was also heir apparent, and he and Chretien clearly hated each other.

Two years ago, Martin finally quit the government and began waging a guerilla war within the Liberal Party that last December forced Chretien into a retirement that was only slightly premature, but humiliating nevertheless. When Martin became prime minister, the polls said the Liberals couldn’t possibly lose. Now he is hanging on the ropes — and the suspicion lingers that this is not just bad luck.

Chretien is a pro. He knows that political parties run out of time after ten or twelve years in power just as surely as he knows the sun rises in the east. Partly the voters just get bored, but it’s also about erosion: to govern is to choose, and with every choice you alienate a few more people. Eventually, after ten or twelve years in power, the governing party has used up all its credit and has to go into opposition for a while.

The Liberals looked set to win another term easily at the ten-year mark, because Canada has probably the healthiest economy in the G-8 right now, but at the following election they would almost certainly have been thrown out of power, perhaps for a long time. This was not an appetising prospect for a party that has come to think of itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Canada.

Much more sensible, from a Liberal point of view, would be a brief period right now as a minority government, or even in opposition. Not a long period, mind you, only a year or so — just long enough to let the voters vent their anger and frustration, and then the Liberals can come back with the slate wiped clean for another ten years in power.

Even the coldest-blooded politician doesn’t normally plot the defeat of his own party, but there are two special circumstances at play here. One is that the opposition Conservative party is a shotgun marriage between a traditional Canadian conservative party and a hard-right, American-style party, and it’s quite likely to split up again if it winds up in power and has to define its policies on social issues. The other is that Jean Chretien really does dislike and resent Paul Martin.

So maybe sacrificing Martin’s government (which predictably excluded all the old Chretien loyalists anyway), in the confident expectation that a different Liberal government will be back in a year or two, was not such an unthinkable act for Chretien. And he had the weapon to hand: a damning report by the Auditor-General on Liberal sleaze that was originally scheduled to go to parliament late last year. If that had happened, Chretien would have had to take the blame — which would have given Martin a clean slate.

That’s not what the Old Master did. He sent parliament home early, which postponed the damning report until the new year, and then retired at Christmas. The report came out just after Martin took office, and has been a millstone around his neck ever since. It wasn’t the worst piece of corruption Canada has ever seen — a hundred million dollars or so channelled to Quebec advertising firms with Liberal links for a pro-Canada, anti-separatist campaign — but it has become a lighting rod for the disaffection of Canadian voters with a party that suddenly feels like it has been in power for too long.

So the Liberals will either lose power or be forced to scramble to form a coalition or a minority government, and Paul Martin will be a humiliated, soon-to-be has-been. Then in a year or so there will probably be another election, and the Liberals will be back in power with a new leader and all their sins purged. That’s probably how Jean Chretien intends it to play out, at least — and he is the slyest politician on two legs.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Chretien is…while”;and “Even…Martin”)