Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien shocked the country Wednesday night by announcing that he will step down as Liberal Party leader before the next election but will not give up the No. 1 spot until February 2004. Since June, when Chrétien fired his chief rival Paul Martin from the Cabinet over Martin’s refusal to halt his leadership campaign, the increasingly heated infighting within the Grits has been the political story north of the border. Most Canadian papers—almost all of which are openly hostile to Chrétien—reluctantly congratulated the prime minister for a smart political move even as they moaned that they will be stuck with him for 18 more months.
Displaying a fine command of Western vernacular, a Vancouver Sun op-ed declared, “The wily old son of a gun has pulled his keester out of the dumpster yet again. … His surprise announcement … enables Mr. Chretien (1) to keep power for a good while longer, (2) save face and circumvent a leadership review and (3) squash the increasingly aggressive overtures of the Paul Martin gang.”
Many papers warned that Chrétien will be a “lame duck” for the next 18 months. The Calgary Sun’s response? “We sure hope so. After all, the alternative is the feathered equivalent of a loose cannon—something like a rabid emu or ostrich. A powerful bird ready to launch into a litany of damaging new spending sprees and ‘legacy-building’ programs that will bleed this country dry.” A Globe and Mail op-ed moaned: “[W]e’ve got the lamest duck in Canadian history. We are desperate for regime change. Instead, when Parliament resumes this fall, the faces in the news will be—all the same old faces! It’s like turning on the TV and all you find are M.A.S.H. reruns, but without the witty dialogue.” Chrétien himself rejected the lame duck canard; he pointed out to the Toronto Star that Pierre Trudeau spent four years in office after declaring he wouldn’t run again and added, “The president of the United States, in his second term, is a lame duck the first day. The president of Mexico is a lame duck the day he’s sworn in; he can’t run again.”
Chrétien’s announcement was seen by many commentators as a guarantee that the leadership race will be prolonged rather than postponed. The National Post declared, “[T]he PM’s decision to forestall his departure until February, 2004 … will perpetuate the festering crisis in the Liberal party.” The Edmonton Sun said, “[B]y dragging his retirement out for another year and a half, Chretien has all but assured Canadians that the party won’t be dealing with anything else but the leadership question until just before the next election.” A columnist in Quebec’s Le Soleil fretted that the leadership ambitions of the four candidates currently holding ministerial positions—Martin Cauchon, Sheila Copps, John Manley, and Alan Rock—would lead them to prioritize personal glory over party policy: “The government will be in neutral.”
Perhaps the most cynical—though widely held—view was that Chrétien’s main intention was to thwart his arch-enemy’s ambitions. The Toronto Star summarized: “By hanging around, Chrétien obviously hopes to sabotage Paul Martin, the man who forced this resignation, by giving other, younger leadership aspirants plenty of time to mount a ‘generational change’ campaign against him. Martin will be 65, a senior citizen, when the leadership is finally decided.” The Calgary Sun agreed: “The only thing that is more powerful than Chretien’s ego and lust for a legacy is his unmitigated hate for former finance minister Paul Martin, the man who is currently far in the lead of the now official Liberal leadership race.” The Globe and Mail also concurred: “Frustrating Mr. Martin’s ambition—rather than dedication to the “responsibility” of office or the discovery of a new governing agenda—drove yesterday’s cleverly calculated gambit.”