'It's almost like a coup d'etat'
Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief, with files from Alan Toulin
OTTAWA - Paul Martin plans to mount a war of attrition against Jean Chretien
to pressure the prime minister to resign before the next general election,
the National Post has learned.
As the Liberal party convention came to a close yesterday with appeals from
the prime minister for unity apparently falling on deaf ears, the Martin
camp made it clear they plan to step up their attacks against Mr. Chretien.
Allies of the finance minister acknowledge there is no party mechanism in
place to remove Mr. Chretien. They also concede there will be no attempt to
line up caucus signatures to ask the prime minister to resign, as Mr.
Chretien's supporters did to John Turner in 1987 when the latter was Liberal
Nevertheless, inspired by the huge following in the party as demonstrated at
the four-day convention when the 61-year-old finance minister was wildly
cheered by the 2,800 party faithful, the Martin camp now plans to fight the
leadership battle by concentrating on three fronts.
- That Mr. Chretien will face more calls from prominent Liberals to resign.
- That Mr. Martin has a better chance than the prime minister of raising the
necessary finances to secure a healthy pre-election budget for the party.
- That disaffection within the Liberal caucus may force MPs to break party
ranks and publicly denounce the direction of the government's policies.
Close advisors to the prime minister concede the battle with the Martin
forces is not over.
A member of the Chretien re-election committee said: "These guys haven't
stopped ... It's foolish to say it's over. They are trying to destabilize
the prime minister. It's almost like a coup d'etat."
The Martin camp is convinced that Mr. Chretien lacks the vision, energy and
ability to win a third majority government, especially if the Canadian
Alliance gets a new leader such as Stockwell Day, the Alberta Treasurer, and
receives the backing of Mike Harris, the Ontario Premier.
For the prime minister to attempt to force Mr. Martin from the cabinet is
seen as an unacceptable political risk, partly because of the possible
economic repercussions and partly because of the sense of debt senior
Liberals feel for Mr. Martin, who is credited with balancing the federal
government's books since becoming finance minister in 1993.
Mr. Martin will play no overt role in the conspiracy to oust Mr. Chretien.
Mr. Martin will continue to pay homage to Mr. Chretien while spending time
on the road showing grassroots Liberals that he is the man to carry the
torch in the next election.
As Mr. Chretien discovered on the eve of the Liberal convention, he will
face more calls from prominent Liberals for him to resign. Aside from the 11
dissident Liberal MPs, Mr. Chretien has faced resignation demands from 10
Liberal members of the Quebec National Assembly -- all Martin supporters --
as well as from Greg Sorbara, the Ontario provincial Liberal president.
The Chretien camp will also find it difficult to raise money at events where
the prime minister is the keynote speaker, something he has already
For example, Mr. Chretien was the main attraction last fall at the Maple
Leaf Dinner, a major fundraiser in Toronto chaired by the chief executive of
Ford Motor Co. of Canada. But 1,200 of the $500 tickets were bought by Ford
dealerships and only 800 by party faithful. In the past, the Maple Leaf
dinner has sold up to 4,000 tickets.
In February, Chretien organizers were able to sell only 400 tickets to a
less expensive event in Toronto in a ballroom that can hold 600.
"They were arm-twisting to get people out for $50 a ticket," one Martin
organizer said. "Contrast that with the 3,000 people who turned out for
Martin at the Banquet Hall in Richmond Hill [Ont.] on Feb. 5," an event
organized by Joe Volpe, a veteran Toronto Liberal MP who supports Martin.
If the strategy is successful, the message to the Liberal party, which needs
to raise millions of dollars for the next election, is that Mr. Martin is
the rainmaker -- that the prime minister cannot be counted on to bring out
the crowds with their chequebooks.
Even more serious for Mr. Chretien will be the actions of Liberal MPs,
particularly those from Northern Ontario and suburban Toronto.