PM rejects Sharp's suggestion that he's seeking a way out
Shannon Kari, Joan Bryden and Tim Naumetz
The Ottawa Citizen
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien rejected his mentor's suggestion that he likely won't lead his party into another election yesterday and stressed he was re-elected to serve a five-year term as Canada's leader.
"I have a mandate from the people of Canada, three majorities, and I have to do my job," Mr. Chrétien said at a Liberal party picnic in Welland, Ont., adding that he will wait until the second half of his mandate before deciding his future, which many Liberals interpret as meaning the fall of 2003.
"In the second part of my mandate, I always look. All sorts of people give me advice and I take the advice sometimes and sometimes I reject it. But we're not there yet," said Mr. Chrétien.
Mitchell Sharp, the former Liberal cabinet minister who is the prime minister's long-time political mentor, told the Citizen he believes the chances of Mr. Chrétien running in the next election are "slight," but the prime minister is interested in "being permitted a graceful departure from a grateful party."
In Welland, however, Mr. Chrétien told a different story.
"I decide things, when the time comes," he said.
He admitted that "everybody's commenting" and "some friends are doing some work for me, but added that "I have to do my job as prime minister and it's what I am doing. I'm looking forward to a good session in the fall."
He responded sharply when a reporter suggested that the Canadian electorate would like to know soon if he intends to seek another term. "The Canadian people voted for me, Madame, for five years," said Mr. Chrétien.
The prime minister also joked about his future during a speech to nearly 1,000 people, who attended the party function in honour of Aurel Gervais, a politician and leader in the francophone community in Welland, who died last month.
In a reference to meeting Pope John Paul during his visit to Canada last month, Mr. Chrétien said, "he's a guy who wants to finish his mandate, like me."
Earlier, in New Brunswick to announce federal funding for twinning a dangerous section of the Trans-Canada Highway, Mr. Chrétien also refused to rule out the possibility of running for a fourth mandate and suggested that Mr. Sharp, a longtime friend and adviser, doesn't know what he'll do.
"I don't know if he knows it. I don't know myself," the prime minister said.
Senator David Smith, one of Mr. Chrétien's top strategists, said Mr. Sharp was speaking strictly for himself.
"When you're 91, you don't need permission to speak and I think Mitchell was speaking for himself," Mr. Smith said in an interview.
Some Chrétien loyalists believe the prime minister cannot win next February's party-wide leadership review unless he promises in advance to retire, guaranteeing that he won't construe a positive review vote as a mandate to lead the party into another election. Some Liberals viewed Mr. Sharp's comments yesterday as a signal that Mr. Chrétien may now be planning to make such a concession.
But Mr. Smith dismissed the notion.
"At the moment, that's not his intention."
Another senior insider close to Mr. Chrétien said Mr. Sharp was not asked to send a signal on Mr. Chrétien's behalf.
"It was not part of an organized plan. He did it totally on his own."
Insiders said Mr. Chrétien continues to believe it would be wrong for a successful prime minister to allow himself to be hounded by an ambitious rival into negotiating limits on a mandate given him by Canadian voters. In any event, they said Mr. Chrétien doubts that supporters of former finance minister Paul Martin, who are organizing to humiliate him in the review vote, would be satisfied with a promise to retire before the next election and would insist that he set a date for his departure no later than next spring.
Indeed, reaction to Mr. Sharp's comments appeared to bear out Mr. Chrétien's assessment. Backbenchers supporting Mr. Martin's bid to succeed Mr. Chrétien said they intend to press the prime minister at next week's summer caucus meeting in Chicoutimi, Quebec to set an early date for his retirement.
"The prime minister has a moral obligation and political obligation to make a clear declaration at Chicoutimi ... and announce that he's stepping aside at a particular time," said Ontario MP Dan McTeague.
Mr. McTeague said a vague promise to retire eventually "would be a recipe for paralysis," turning Mr. Chrétien into a lame duck and preventing the government from proceeding with its agenda.
Mr. McTeague also raised the stakes in the leadership standoff, saying for the first time that he and other Liberal MPs will likely not run in the next election if Mr. Chrétien remains leader.
After the review convention, "if he's still on, then I suspect a number of us will not be returning as candidates in the next election," Mr. McTeague said.
Liberal MPs who want Mr. Chrétien to step aside reacted with anger and skepticism to Mr. Sharp's statements and forecast even more bitterness and division in the party.
Montreal MP Nick Discepola said few Liberals would believe Mr. Chrétien if he promised to retire without announcing a specific date. He said many feel they were misled into giving Mr. Chrétien a strong endorsement in the 1998 leadership review, believing he'd retire shortly afterwards. Instead Mr. Chrétien interpreted the vote as a mandate from the party to lead the party into a third election in 2000.
"If the prime minister has no intention of running again, seeking a fourth mandate, then why put the party through a divisive review?" Mr. Discepola said.
He said the only way for Mr. Chrétien to avoid humiliation in the review is to announce that he'll retire next April, after celebrating his 40th anniversary in politics. That would allow the party to cancel the February convention and call a leadership convention for May or June.
The latest rumour Martin backers are hearing about Mr. Chrétien's strategy involves a possible retirement announcement this fall, before the leadership review process begins in November, with Mr. Chrétien staying on as prime minister until at least January 2004.
Toronto MP Joe Volpe said Mr. Chrétien cannot avoid the party leadership review by announcing plans to retire in early 2004.
"There is only one way to avoid the leadership review and that's to turn that (February) convention into a leadership convention, period."
Mr. Volpe added that unless Mr. Chrétien declares his intentions, further party dissension and bitterness is inevitable until the February convention.
Toronto MP Steve Mahoney, a Chrétien loyalist, said he agrees with Mr. Sharp.
"My personal view is the prime minister would like to find a way not to run again. Certainly his wife would like that. But he's not going to be bullied or run out of town."
While Mr. Mahoney said he's satisfied that Mr. Chrétien will make a decision in the best interests of the party at a time of his own choosing, he acknowledged that many Liberals want a guarantee that a positive vote in February won't be construed as a blank cheque for Mr. Chrétien to run again.
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen