CBC Analysis
Boxing in a Prime Minister
CBC News Viewpoint | June 28, 2002 | More from Larry Zolf

Larry Zolf Never before has a majority prime minister in Canada been boxed in as Jean Chrétien is at the moment. Things aren’t going well for him in the leadership race. A tip-off came early in the game when he rejected the Joe Clark benchmark of two-thirds review support that led to a Tory leadership convention and Brian Mulroney.

When asked by the media what his benchmark was in the Liberal leadership review, Chrétien all too quickly said 50.1. This act of desperation came from a political leader whose last leadership review in 2000 gave him a ringing 90 per cent endorsement.

Another tip-off is the alacrity with which Chrétien moved to endorse Bush’s new Middle East policy albeit without an Arafat removal. The normally Democratic American Jewish community strongly endorsed Bush’s new policy. It’s clear Bush has his eye on the congressional elections coming up in November.

In his cautious move to a more pro-Israel policy, Chrétien has his eyes on the leadership review and the many, many powerful Liberals of Jewish extraction in this country. A 1969 poll revealed that 10 per cent of the delegates at the 1968 Liberal leadership convention that chose Trudeau were Jewish. This figure could even be much higher for the present Liberal leadership review.

The main problem for Chrétien is that the leadership review process is a secret ballot for both the selection of delegates to the February 2003 gathering and the membership vote on the need for a leadership convention. The prime minister must win both of these procedures to survive.

To stave off defeat in such an elaborate process, Chrétien must have a massive organization within the Liberal party and in every riding. There is only one such organization, one such army in the Liberal party and that belongs to the man who has been working the Liberal party faithfully and systematically for years: Paul Martin.

Nor can the instant ethnic Liberals that flooded into the Liberal party on behalf of Chrétien in his leadership victory in 1990 save him now. Toronto Italian MPs like Tony Ianno and Joe Volpe have long since left Chrétien and gone over to Martin. One wonders why Chrétien didn’t sense the dangers to him in the leadership review early in the game. It seems he was certain that any such review would give him 75 per cent or better.

Now there’s talk, perhaps desperate talk, that a boxed-in Chrétien may try to cancel the whole leadership review process. Holding him back is the fear that if he did so, he would be dubbed a coward on one hand and, on the other, an arrogant bully terrified of the rank and file of his own party.

Then there is the Lawrence Martin thesis that Chrétien will call a snap election this November. A very senior Tory election strategist both federally and in Ontario provincial politics told Inside Zolf that a snap election will be held this November, in only the second year of the Liberal mandate. The theory is that this blitzkrieg election would kill the leadership review and get Chrétien his fourth election victory and a tie with Laurier in the history books.

In this game plan, Chrétien is certain that his highly acclaimed appointee, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, would grant him automatic dissolution.

The theory rests on a long-held precedent, that of Mackenzie King and the King-Byng-wing-ding. In 1926, Governor General Byng refused dissolution to Mackenzie King and called on Arthur Meighen, the Tory leader of the Opposition, to form a government. From the very beginning, Prime Minister Meighen could not control or gain the confidence of the House. Meighen then asked for dissolution. Byng gave him one.

In the 1926 election, King ran, in effect, against Governor General Byng. King argued that Meighen had given the Governor General bad advice. King won a majority. Since then the Liberal view is that the Governor General in Canada has no right to refuse dissolution from a Canadian prime minister.

The late legendary Eugene Forsey, Canada’s renowned expert on the right of disallowance, dismissed this Liberal doctrine of dissolution as errant nonsense. Forsey insisted it was always the Governor General’s duty to keep a Parliament alive. This would be especially true for a Parliament that has only been in existence for two years of a five-year mandate.

Forsey argued that the Governor General must take all steps necessary to thwart the will of a ruthless prime minister prematurely calling for the death of a Parliament. Would Governor General Adrienne Clarkson refuse the advice of Chrétien, the man who appointed her, and thus end Chrétien’s career ingloriously? Those who know the Governor General well are certain she feels she owes nothing to anybody – except to Canada and her husband John Ralston Saul.

Writer-philosopher John Ralston Saul is a long-time constitutional buff. Saul’s heroes are Baldwin and LaFontaine, the fathers of responsible government in Canada, which is the backbone of the constitution. Saul has written much about these two gentlemen. John Ralston Saul is steeped in the Forsey view of dissolution and the constitution.

John Ralston Saul would not be amused by any Chrétien attempt to subvert the Liberal leadership review by the call for a snap election in November 2002. With an eye on the history books, John Ralston Saul could recommend to the Governor General that she decline Chrétien’s call for dissolution and instead call on another Liberal – be it Martin, John Manley or even an outsider like Brian Tobin – to form a government, face the House and carry on a responsible government.

The Liberal leadership review promises to be a long political and constitutional 15-rounder. It also raises this quirky question: Is the present boxing in of the prime minister on the leadership review merely the end of a bad beginning for Chrétien – or is it the beginning of a bad ending for the prime minister?


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Veteran journalist and Canadian political expert Larry Zolf is a regular contributor to CBC News Online. Larry has been a critic, reporter, producer and consultant for CBC news and current affairs since he joined the CBC in 1962. Born and raised in North End Winnipeg, the hotbed of general strikes and socialism, Larry has covered stories such as integration in Mississippi and the October Crisis in Quebec. He was one of the hosts of the CBC's flagship current affairs television show "This Hour Has 7 Days." He is now retired.

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